Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Lisa Gornick Asks: Can Writing Make You a Better Person?

In the 30th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Lisa Gornick, author of Louisa Meets Bear (Sarah Crichton Books/FSG), looks to take the high road.

Disclaimer: Putting aside extremes—ax murderer, extortionist—anything we do with commitment and self-reflection can make us a better person. But writing is what I do these days, and here’s how it helps me.

(A list because lists go down easy, seven because lore says it’s the sweet memory spot…)

  1. To write, I have to observe. I have to push myself to see: sky beyond generic dawn or dusk, drunk beyond scruffy and stumbling. To hear: the breathing of someone so angry he might punch a wall, trees before a hurricane hits. To smell garbage on the eighth day after an apocalypse, feel a sea slick with oil, taste chicken a hallucinating mother browned with shoe polish.
  2. To write, I have to tolerate being alone at my desk, without answering the phone or checking email or looking up Black Friday sales. An act of warfare against the multitasking-google-social media-hegemony.
  3. To write, I have to be honest with myself. I have to be able to say this is not good or new or worthwhile. I have to be able to accept that this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter is not working and has to be redone or done away with. I have to recognize when I am procrastinating, in a muddle, avoiding how much I don’t know. Or afraid of pursuing a scene because of what others might think or what it might make me think about myself. And sometimes, I have to say, just to myself, this is a leap for me. This is good.
  4. To write, I have to push myself to go deeper and into more dangerous territory, and to work harder and longer than I believe I can. I have to find the courage and concentration and persistence, and then do everything in my power to become a mental tri-athlete.
  5. To write, I have to be independent: to take my work as far as I can on my own, so it reaches into my unconscious and is work only I could write. No crowdsourcing, no groupthink. I have to trust myself that with patience I can find my way out of confusion and vagueness and cliché to something that is original and true.
  6. To write, I have to accept that I have blind spots and can’t always see the big picture or hear my verbal tics or identify the places where burrowing in or paring back will make the work more luminous. I have to find readers who give honest feedback—not those who primarily reassure or those who eviscerate, but a few people who are committed to helping me make my work its own best self. And then I have to listen carefully to what my readers say, never arguing, always responding with gratitude because it is an act of love for another person to put his or her mind to my work. And, if what is said rings true, I have to make the changes, even if it takes two months or two years. And if what is said feels like it takes the work in a direction different from my own vision, I have to simply say thank you.
  7. To write, I have to believe that the work and my development as a writer, not the metrics of sales and prizes and likes and shares, is what matters. I have to resist the statistics of the marketplace, beware of how they can damage the literary soul.   

Do I achieve all of these virtues every day? Never. Do I reach any of them in a week? Sometimes. But writing points me toward the high road—and that, I know, is the best direction.