Thursday, December 15, 2016

Dustin M. Hoffman's Letter to A Young Writer (Probably Himself)

In the 60th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Dustin M. Hoffman, author of One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist (University of Nebraska Press), gives himself a pep talk.

Dear Doubt,
Dear Young Writer,
That is: Dear Young Writer Who Is Probably Me,
That is: Dear Doubt, Embarrassment, Anxiety,

Not much has changed, I suppose, from that first workshop story. The doubt and embarrassment shadows you and will continue. To be a writer is to question your purpose, your prose, your themes, your commas. To be a writer is to doubt and to delete adjectives. Even writing this now, I hesitate to spill advice. But I urge you to build confidence in your gaping doubt. That dark pit will house your foundation. I worry much more about you, young writer who is probably me, when you’re sure and blustering and building stories atop sand. Confidence happens rarely for you, I know, and here I am stealing those grains.

Listen and be humble and be obsessed with writers better than you. There will always be more of them than you’ll ever have time to read, and that’s a shame worth embracing. Compare yourself to the world and find yourself small. That smallness allows you to explore the crannies where tiny truths may have slipped. These tiny truths are much more interesting than the boulders you try to heft on your shoulder when you scratch maudlin poetry on notebook paper, when you turn those angst-filled ambiguities into end-rhyming song lyrics of protest in your punk-rock band. Eventually, young writer who is probably me, you’ll find a small truth hiding, and you’ll write a story about a drywaller you used to work with. You’ll be scared to write that story that doesn’t seem meaningful enough, because it isn’t death or love or revolution or madness. Your story is merely work, merely that living you make and try to forget so you can make big bleeding art.
Putting up drywall: The shape of truth

Listen to the teacher who tells you that drywaller is worth writing about, the drywaller who was your friend when you worked construction, a job that was the opposite of art, of those hulking-with-purpose punk rock songs and obtuse poems. In the corner of that drywaller’s mud pan, behind the dried mud, you might find your little truth. Gripped in his callused hands, there’s something worth writing around. And that you don’t understand the shape of this truth or how to hold something so small is the reason you should try. That you are terrified of getting it wrong and embarrassing yourself and betraying that drywaller is why you should write it.

I’m going to risk a foolishly big truth here: Write the stories you’re scared to write. Skip those ones that feel big enough to be literature. Don’t worry about whether your story has enough in it to turn into a novel and sell a million copies and live forever. Don’t write the stories packed full of relatability for the workshop. If you write your small stories that make your teeth grind and bladder hurt and spine sweat because you’re so scared you’ll get them wrong, I promise there will be pages for you and readers for those pages. And then when you become good at finding more small stories, only write the ones that make you anxious, that you doubt you’re good enough to write.

Under the neon flicker of the short story form, those small stories have a home. Stay anxious as you imagine every reader. Only when you’re worried and doubting will you care enough to find the small truth that fits into the palm of the short story.


A Not-so-old Writer with More Embarrassment Ahead