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Hi, loves. 🌿 + 📝
Something new for you this fall.
A few weeks ago I started teaching at USC again, and for whatever reason — maybe because I’ve been teaching writing for a while now, or maybe because I’m venturing into new narrative/formal territory myself, or maybe because I’m getting older all the time, or maybe because I’m less committed to certainty than ever — my guiding thought with my students this year has been: We just don’t know what we’re doing. (I’m sure I instill a lot of confidence in everyone.)
I say this, I think, because I want the students to feel at home. I want them to feel that they are capable of writing great things. (I’m sorry but we will all write shitty things.) I want them to know that writers aren’t a rarified breed; we are all working in the dark, afraid, confused, inspired, searching, playing, getting it right, getting it wrong, starting over. The point I’m trying to get at seems to be (for myself and for others): There is no secret to this. Just try and try and try.
This isn’t to say I won’t teach them anything or that writing is easy! (Wouldn’t it be funny if that was my whole class? “No one knows”? You all get As?) We read a ton and write even more and spend hours talking about voice and form and image and narrative arcs and line breaks and plots and structure and how to refine and deepen a sentence, etc. etc. etc. But in trying to get them to actually write, to not fly into a panic, I keep repeating: Nobody knows — nobody knows!!! — what they’re doing. Even writers who’ve written many books don’t know what they’re doing from one book to the next (and often from one day to the next, or from one sentence to the next). All you can really do is sit down and put one word in front of the other and see what happens — what seeds are you planting? What images appear? What word would further refine that thought? What would that character really say or do next? Or as George Saunders puts it, do I like this sentence enough to move onto the next one?
For my USC class, I was reading an essay in The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine, in which the writer, Nellie Hermann, quotes Dr. Stuart Firestein, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia. We think, he writes, that scientists are driven by facts, but Firestein argues that they are (of course!) actually driven by ignorance — the absence of fact, understanding, insight or clarity about something.
Imagine that. Being driven by ignorance. It made me think so much about writing — about how we write into what we don’t know. Grace Paley said, “write about what you know to find out what you don’t know about what you know.” Joan Didion famously wrote that she wouldn’t have written A Book of Common Prayer if she’d known the answers to any of the questions she was asking herself. We, too, are driven by a kind of ignorance. It is scary! So fucking scary. For years I thought, well, I should know before I start, but now I think, this is stupid. How could I know? And the possibilities in that — in not knowing — are thrilling.
This summer, I had the most incredible privilege of being part of a group of 130 women writing their hearts out week after week in Summer School. Other than the truly extraordinary writing that came out of it — I really did laugh and cry and gasp every single week — the best part of it all was bearing witness to all this creative work. Loads and loads of it, week after week, by dozens of dozens of women who might not call themselves “writers” but who most certainly are: Moms with no time who wrote a tiny poem and posted it to much fanfare from the group. Women who hadn’t tried a creative thing in years who gave themselves over to their own thoughts. Women who had put their careers or families first who finally opened up a space inside themselves to explore. That alone — the thought that these people were making space for the “me” in all this?? — made my heart burst.
Last week, as a final farewell, a whole group of us met up on Zoom for a reading and there was much laughter and so many tears: the joy of being witness to each other’s bravery and strength and vulnerability. To finally seeing each other’s faces! Hearing voices! Learning real names! Listening to those startling sentences being read aloud! “I’m going to take with me the memory of listening to women I don’t know say beautiful, important, true things,” one of the writers shared. “And responding to each other, ‘I remember this one.’ ‘I am wrecked.’ ‘That last line!’ So tender, maybe a generosity we usually reserve for our children. Where else does this exist?”
I wonder whether we might create some of that here?
I’ve been thinking about how to hold onto some of the beauty and intimacy of Summer School while offering a bigger group of people a chance to write in an ongoing way. I know that so many of you want to write but can’t commit to a weekly (or even monthly) class, so I’ve come up with a way for us to write together.
To that end — and please excuse the business swerve here! — I’m adding a new, paid feature to this very newsletter. A class just for you! Here are the details:
First things first: If you are a Patreon subscriber, as of this month, that subscription will be terminated. (No more paying through Patreon; you can only pay here, on Substack. Too fucking complicated for everyone.) So if you want to keep on paying (please do!), read below.
If you become a paid subscriber, you will get a weekly poem + writing prompt. Consider it a super mellow remote school, or a quasi-extension of Summer School.
Here’s how it’ll work: Free subscribers will continue to get the weekly essay, but paid subscribers will get something additional on Thursdays. (If you did Summer School, this will be very familiar.) I’ll post a poem or short reading, along with a writing prompt, and some instructions on what to do. In the comment thread on this closed/private group, you can share your writing if you’d like and comment on each other’s work. (Don’t panic! We will do a more formal Summer School again in a few months.)
Alternatively, you can use the prompt as a chance to just write in your own notebook or notes app or on your computer. My dear friend and student, Kathleen, calls our Friday writing class her “creative date” with herself, so I offer this added bonus as a (private) creative date for you! One you can rely on, week after week.
Some of you might be happy to just receive the newsletters, and that’s wonderful. But if my experience with Summer School has taught me anything, it’s that we all deserve a little creative time and space, and an easy, consistent practice is the way to go.
This added little Thursday bonus is meant for:
All the amazing Summer School writers who want to keep going at a more casual pace.
Teachers and writers who want to steal/borrow/be inspired by some poem + prompt ideas.
Anyone who wants to support this newsletter and/or writer.
So, really, this is for everyone! I’d be so thrilled if you’d consider it. You can do so on the button below (it should give you a paid option).
Thursday poems + prompts will start up next week, September 15th, so be sure to sign up ASAP in order to not miss anything.
As always, please reach out with any questions, and I cannot wait to write with you!
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