Garth Greenwell on What It Means to Live the Writer’s Life
Advice and Wisdom from His Bennington College Commencement Speech
When I was a child, the two biggest industries in the part of the world I come from were tobacco farming (my family were small farmers) and coal mining. And so I’ve always been skeptical when writers complain about what hard work writing is, which—if my two decades in writing communities have taught me anything, they’ve taught me this—is our favorite thing to do. Certainly we like complaining about writing more than we like writing itself, though if we’re very clever sometimes we can combine the two. Yeats was very clever, and he wrote this:
A line will take us hours maybe,
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching have been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather—
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.
This is from “Adam’s Curse,” which is a great poem. But as I write this, sitting at the desk where I sit every morning, writing and not writing and thinking about writing and thinking about anything but writing, all while more or less comfortable and dry and warm, I’m actually fairly sure that my lot in life is luckier than that of an Irish pauper breaking stones. I get to sit and think and have feelings and record my experience of the world with the utterly outlandish and nevertheless not entirely unfounded expectation that other people will be interested enough to read what I write. It’s astonishing, really, to be able to do what we do: what unaccountable privilege, what miraculous luck.
That said, writing is really hard and I complain about it more than anyone else I know. It’s hard for obvious reasons: it’s a terrible way to make a living, and—unless one is very successful indeed—Yeats was right about the disdain in which it’s held by the arbiters of worldly value. The worldly rewards of writing, when there are rewards—money, prestige—are almost always small, and even those seem impossibly out of reach.
But the real difficulty about the life we’ve chosen, the writer’s life, is what seems to me so often like its loneliness, the solitude that maybe impels us to write and that is almost always the necessary condition and accompaniment and perhaps also the consequence of writing. I think this is true whatever kind of life we settle into, whether convivial or solitary. To be a writer in America today means living a life for which there’s not really a pattern, which is part of why along with the accomplishment and pride you feel today you may be feeling a bit of anxiety, too. And being a writer also means making things for which there is no pattern, or whose patterns and rules are dictated by internal exigencies that become clear only in their own satisfaction and so therefore are never fully clear. The hours we spend writing may be full of exhilaration or dissatisfaction or uncertainty, probably they’re full of all of those things, but they are hours we spend alone.
Writing is hard because one measure of our seriousness as artists, I think, is the extent to which we make ourselves vulnerable in those hours, the extent to which we make them hard for ourselves, hard on ourselves, the extent to which we examine and reveal our most intimate selves on the page. I don’t mean the extent to which our writing is confessional or autobiographical. I mean that to write a story or a poem or an essay is to make a claim about what we find beautiful, about what moves us, to reveal a vision of the world, which is always terrifying; to write seriously is to find ourselves always pressed against not just our technical but our moral limits. “One beats and beats for that which one believes,” says Stevens. And we do this without any way of confirming the value of what we’ve done, since unlike tobacco farms and coal mines novels and poems have no objective measure of accomplishment; neither the opinion of critics—which is so often wrong—nor our own sense of what we’ve written, which swings wildly by the hour, can offer any sure judgment of what we’ve made.
I think it’s hard to communicate this kind of difficulty to people who haven’t experienced it, who don’t experience it on a regular basis. For four semesters it has been your luck to gather together here, in this place where that difficulty is shared, where everyone around you has experienced it, where you can complain about it endlessly and relax into the camaraderie of its being understood. I did two MFAs, fifteen years apart, and I’m grateful to them both for more reasons than I can say, but the most important reason is the community that they placed me in, a community of writers I have continued to read and will spend the rest of my life reading, and of friendships that have leavened and eased the necessary solitude of the writer’s work.
In her memoir The Odd Woman and the City, Vivian Gornick has a beautiful passage where she suggests that the value of a great friendship is that it holds up to us an image of our best, our bravest and most generous self. The time you have spent in this very lucky place is time in which you’ve lived closer than you’re likely ever to do again to a kind of purity of artistic intention, sheltered from the marketplace and from so many of the difficulties of the life we’ve all chosen. I think they are likely to be the years in which you have been least daunted by those difficulties. This is one reason why I think the friendships you’ve made here will be uniquely crucial to you in your lives—as such friendships have been in my own life—and I think this is the service you’ll provide one another: that in the years to come you will turn to one another and be reminded of the sense of purpose you felt here and the sense of endeavor you shared, and be reminded too of those undaunted selves you were here.
It’s traditional, I think, at this point in this kind of address, to offer something like advice. I feel a little fraudulent doing that, since I don’t think advice often helps much; I think every artist makes it up as they go along. But here are seven very opinionated thoughts, of dubious value and in no particular order, about weathering the artist’s life, and especially the life of an artist in the world:
1) Hold your friends close
The success of an MFA program isn’t measured in how many poems you publish or whether you find an agent, or even in how many pages you manage to write; it’s in the friendships you form, and in the number of helpful readers you find. A great workshop, I tell my own students, is one in which you find one or two useful readers, and one or two writers whose work excites you. Hold these people close; don’t lose touch; do the work of maintaining those friendships. Read their poems and stories and essays, honestly and generously; celebrate their successes; help them see disappointments, which are inevitable, in the proper scale.
2) Comparison is the Devil
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 is about the hell of comparing oneself with others. When the poet says, “Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, / With what I most enjoy contented least,” I think one of things he means is how the joy one can take in making—”what I most enjoy”—is curdled the minute one starts to weigh one’s accomplishments against the accomplishments of others. The ruling god of the writing world is chance, and it rains (or doesn’t rain) its blessings down with perfect injustice. You will publish books before your friends do, your friends will win prizes before you do, someone none of you knows will be crowned the season’s great writer of her generation. None of this has to do with literature, none of it matters, nothing good can come from trying to gauge your career against the careers of your friends. What matters is invisible, the work you do day by day in solitude. Comparison is the devil, and envy is the devil’s work.
3) Envy doesn’t matter
But you will compare, of course, and most of all you will measure yourself against your friends, and for the 99-point-bar-9 percent of us who are not saints, this means that we will find ourselves from time to time envying our friends. You should acknowledge this, and refuse it any importance, and remember that envy doesn’t cancel the joy and pride you also feel for your friends. So long as this is true, envy doesn’t matter.
4) The content changes but the anxiety remains the same
It is only slightly exaggerating to say that everything about publishing a book is terrible, even when things go well. Maybe this is a matter of temperament, and people blessed with good temperaments live in full knowledge of the wonder and sense of grace they should feel about every aspect of the privilege it is to put a book into the world, and it just happens that I and every writer I know have bad temperaments. For Philip Roth, who published some thirty-plus books and won every possible literary award—or every award but one—writing was “frustration, daily frustration, not to mention humiliation.” If writing felt like humiliation to Philip Roth, what hope do any of the rest of us have? The idea that some sign of outward success, some award or sales figure, could satisfy us is a mistake, I think. The soul one pours into a novel or a collection of poems, the years of effort a book represents—what possible response from the world could be adequate recompense for that?
I remember thinking, as an MFA student, that the anxiety I felt would lessen when I got an agent, then when I sold a book, then when I got my edits, then when the book was published, then when I got my first review, then when I got a particular review, then when I finished a second book, then when I sold a second book, etc. At each point the content changes but the anxiety remains the same. The only time the anxiety lessens is when I’m bent over my notebook doing the only work that matters: trying to write a decent sentence, then another decent sentence, then one good page and another.
5) Not writing is the only failure that matters
For twenty years before I published my first book, I wrote in absolute obscurity, in something that could only look from the outside like failure. Certainly it looked like failure to my family, to many of my friends, often enough to myself. For some of that time I was a student, for much of it I taught high school English. But in all those years, without any visible success, there was only one year that I experienced real failure, the only kind of failure that counts: my first year teaching high school, when I was so overwhelmed that for the nine months of the academic year I didn’t write a word. There’s a grace in the kinds of deadlines MFA programs impose, and for two years you’ve worked hard to meet them. The biggest challenge facing you now is to keep writing without them. There’s no magic to this. Sit at your desk and write.
6) Read everything
It’s important to read new books: to know what your contemporaries are writing, to keep your finger on the pulse of a literary culture. But I worry, with many of the MFA students I meet, that writing being done in America right now is almost all they read. I think current American writing is vibrant and exciting; but any time you draw most of your reading from a single country, a single language, a single decade, you’re drawing from a very shallow well. Read everything; seek the deepest and most varied wells. The writer Yiyun Li has a rule: for every book she reads by a living writer, she reads at least one book by a dead writer. This is an excellent rule. Read in other languages. Every significant period of innovation in English-language literature has happened because of the collision of languages and traditions.
It’s a simplification, but not really a grotesque simplification, to say that the Renaissance happened in English because Wyatt read Petrarch; Romanticism happened because Coleridge read German philosophy; naturalism happened because Norris and Crane and Wharton read Zola; Modernism happened because Eliot was reading French poetry and Pound was reading everything. If you can’t read in other languages, read translations. (But do study other languages—study them even if you never get good enough to speak fluently or read without a dictionary; it’s the single most powerful thing you can do to improve your style.) Literature is larger than anything we can say about it, than any craft we can devise. Read everything.
7) Remember the real life of literature
Anyone who cares about the world of books knows this: each year, great books go unnoticed, mediocre books win awards, terrible books sell millions of copies. Very seldom do merit and recognition coincide. (When they do—when Frank Bidart wins the Pulitzer Prize, or Sigrid Nunez wins the National Book Award—it’s important to rejoice.) The truth is that every visible mark of success is irrelevant to the real value of literature.
The saddest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say was a remark made by an editor at a major house, considering the conveyor belt of new books, each granted the month or so of attention an editor and publicist can spare them.
The literary world is set up in such a way that it seems as though if a book isn’t noticed in the first few months after publication it has failed, or if it gets viciously reviewed it has failed, or if it doesn’t win prizes it has failed. All of us know this isn’t true: all of my favorite books sold thirty copies and went immediately out of print. The danger of publication—of leaving the privacy of writing or the purity of an MFA program for the publicity of putting a book into the world, a book about which anyone can say absolutely anything at all they want—the danger of publication is that it can warp one’s values so wildly that these things can seem to be true.
Once, doing a bit of research, I stumbled upon the initial reviews for James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Many of them are absolutely savage, stunningly cruel, stupid and bigoted; when I read them I had difficulty imagining what it must have been like to have such vitriol greet one’s second book. How could he go on, I wondered, how could he bear to write another word? It’s courageous to continue writing in the face of that kind of response.
But reviews have nothing to do with the real life of literature, which happens in an unpredictable elsewhere, a place beyond commodity that no publicity campaign can chart a path to: it happens when a 14-year-old kid in Kentucky, say, pulls Giovanni’s Room down from a library shelf, as I did, having no idea that it would speak to me more intimately than anything had ever spoken to me before, that it would radically change my sense of myself and of my relationship to dignity, that in some quite genuine way it would save my life. That intimate communication between writer and reader, that miracle of affective translation across distance and time, is the real life of literature; that’s what matters; that’s why we endure Roth’s failure and humiliation to perform the extraordinary act of faith that is fixing our voices on the page. What a trial it is, what an intermittent joy, what an extraordinary privilege.
Thank you, and congratulations.