Thursday, July 16, 2009

What Are You Afraid Of?

The best thing any writer can have is a great teacher and mentor. This person could be a more experienced writer, a teacher in a writing program, or an editor—maybe someone who is a combination of all those things. Someone, anyway, who reads your work and does not praise it ceaselessly because you are related by blood or marriage, though there's a place for that in life as well; sometimes we all need an ego boost, however biased it is. But you need someone who will be both encouraging and brutally honest. I have been fortunate to have many such people touch my writing life, but today I remember one startling example in particular: one teacher, one moment. This was in my MFA program, perhaps midway through. I had worked hard all semester, and during a residency in July, there was a student reading. I participated, and I remember that in the audience sat a faculty member I had not worked with directly, but who was a person I respected greatly. After the reading, dinner in the cafeteria. I sat near a window, looking into bright sun, still strong in the long days of summer. This teacher sat down next to me, at the head of the table, and she opened up a conversation about my piece. She said it was good, but then paused. After a beat, she looked me in the eye and said, in a voice that was challenging but not at all aggressive: "What are you afraid of?" And I knew then that she'd intuited something about my writing, about my relationship to the creative process and the careful—too careful—placement of words on the page. It was the best question anyone ever asked, and I try to ask it of myself on a regular basis. I am not sure I ever found a satisfactory answer. Artists are so often made to fear everything about their craft. I wish I could say that even if I feared some unknown element of my writing life then, I am free of all that now. It's not entirely true. Creativity is still frightening in its mystery; it demands so much faith. But the fact that someone cared enough to ask—that question itself still goes a long way toward dispelling the grip of whatever fear lurks at the crossroads of creativity and the inner critic. It's good to ask, to know, each day: what are you afraid of? And how to you get down to work to spite it.

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