I sent this email last week to my “Writing Life Stories” students, who meet in person with me once a week and otherwise online.
I’m reading your new memoirs with enjoyment, appreciation, and a feeling of accomplishment as a teacher for what you’ve done. This semester, you’ve all made art from your experience. We’ve pondered and tried many aspects of writing—but we haven’t touched on publishing. I have some advice on that if you are interested in pursuing it. But first a caveat.
Last summer, attending an intensive writing workshop taught by a respected writer, I was struck by how stringently she separated writing from publishing. And by how sparingly she praised what we wrote. She was a nice person; it was just that we were there to make new work. The point was to keep making pieces, not to jump the gun and think about publishing them, not yet. I don’t think she thought in terms of whether she “liked” or “loved” an essay, but, rather, focused on whether it had some spark, some alive quality.
Most pieces, written in response to prompts, we filed for the future, to be struggled with or cannibalized back home. But everyone churned out one piece that she suggested we might read to the assembled workshops at the end of the week. Those we slaved on, late into the night in our dorm rooms. Then she tried to help each of us further realize its potential. By that time, the extra insight she could provide was powerful. The more frustrated a writer is with his own piece—meaning he has struggled hard with it on all levels and has turned it into an external object, a misshapen piece of clay he’s almost angry at—usually the more help an editor or teacher can provide.