08 November 2008

How soon is now?

In the past, when I served on admissions committees, I often wondered why folks felt so compelled to pinpoint the exact moment when they decided to become writers, and to share that information in the statement of purpose. As in, "From the moment my mother began having contractions, which ended up being Braxton-Hicks and therefore nonproductive, I have wanted to become a writer," or, "Ever since I first learned which end of a pencil to sharpen, I have been a slave to the written word."

Is that the way it's supposed to be? Because I sure didn't aspire to be a poet when I was two years old and standing on the back porch eating a piece of bologna. Sometimes I wish it had crossed my mind when I was in high school, or junior high, but I don't think I really contemplated the future back then. I wrote poems, and they were awful. I wrote short stories that weren't quite as awful. Once in a while I wrote an okay poem. But it was much later that I decided to become a writer and stick with it. I'm talking late in grad school. There was always that tempting possibility of administration, or professional goat herding.

Do writers need to decide that they are writers in order to be good writers?

Is poetry better when the poet has self-identified as a poet, and not as a technical writer who moonlights as a barista, and so on?

Have you decided to be a writer yet? And did it change you?

10 comments:

Jesus Crisis said...

I've decided to be a writer several times in my life, each (except the last) followed by several times when I decided I ought to be the equivalent of a goat herder (or herded) instead. But each time I decided to be a writer, I became a better writer, and that in turn got me heard, which made it more difficult for me to return to herding. And sometimes, it wasn't so much me deciding I am a writer as others deciding I was a writer and me catching their contagion of confidence - like from my high school creative writing teacher, or the librarian in prison, or my blog readers on MySpace, or Ray McNiece and Cavana Faithwalker at the first two poetry open mics I attended. Now I prefer heard to herd and literarily goading to literally (and metaphorically) goating.

Frank (the Colt) said...

I think that people put this statement in the Statement of Purpose because they think that is what they want to hear. I think I said in mine, "I can't go a day without thinking about poetry." Truth is I can go a day without it. I think we decide that we want to become writers at a certain point in our lives, and then try to become that. Some of us become the poet, while others just try and write. I'm trying to get into the first catogory.

John said...

I guess if i were a plumber I could go around and plum for free, keep my business unlisted, randomly unclog drains and such. A plumber of the streets; Christ plumber. Only a few people would know about my work, and I would work for just enough to keep my head above water, so to speak, and I would only use my powers for good. What causes a talented plumber to buy a big blue van and advertise JOE THE PLUMBER in giant script on both sides? Why would said plumber go to plumbing conferences to talk about plumbing with other plumbers? Would said plumber continue to plumb every day just because he likes it? Would being a "PLUMBER" ever become a burden? Does anyone have any obligation to admire plumbing other than the fact that it's, at times, necessary?

Peter Joseph Gloviczki said...

Professional goat herding never gets its due, does it? :)

P. J. said...

My decisions are usually unproductive, like when I decide to get tomato soup at Panera Bread, and they're out of it, and I have to get French onion instead. If I decided to be a writer, likely I'd get a letter in the mail telling me "Hey, we're full up. How about ditch digger, kitty wrangler, or comp instructor?" and I would choose from there, which is actually how it's been.

I think the idea of deciding to be a writer is a cognate of that phrase 'It was the last place I looked!" People say that because they don't continue looking after they found what they were looking for; so once you're an established writer, you can say you chose to be, but until then it seems to me that making the decision doesn't matter much unless it actually pans out. Otherwise, I decide to win 40 million dollars in Wednesday's Lotto drawing.

Dominic Rivron said...

My father was a painter. As far back as I can remember, his paintings hung around me. I always saw exercising one's creativity as something one should aspire to somehow. When I discovered poetry and music I realised these were my way to do what I needed to do: part genes, part paternal example.

Stephanie King said...

I didn't know I was even contemplating being a writer until halfway through college. I was in the midst of "pre-med" studies and just decided... I would rather be writing.

But, I don't know if I still consider myself a writer all the time. Sometimes I feel more like a teacher who writes rather than a writer who teaches. I would prefer to be the latter, though my students probably prefer that I am the former.

word verification: PAZOW

Lyle Daggett said...

In the movie The Moderns, in which Keith Carradine plays an American artist living in Paris in the 1920's, at one point a wealthy and ignorant arts patron (played by Geraldine Chaplin) asks the artist (Carradine) "Why did you become a painter?" and he says, "I was unemployable."

When I was 14 a teacher showed me some poems by Carl Sandburg, and played an LP recording of him reading some of his poems, and it was either that day or that week (this would have been in the fall of 1968) that I decided to be a poet, and I started writing poems.

It took a number of years before I was sure enough about it that I knew I would stick with it, also some poetry writing classes along the way (though have never been in an MFA or other grad program) -- but eventually I'd been doing it long enough that I knew I would keep at it no matter what.

It took me probably around 15 years to get to that point. As far as I can recall, it was sometime in 1981 that a poet I met (who has since become a good friend) asked me if I was a writer, and I said "Yeah, I'm a poet," and that was the first time I'd answered the question exactly that way. Now when people ask me what I do, I very often will say I'm a poet or that I write poems, though it depends on the context.

In general I'm not sure if consciously identifying myself as a poet has made my poetry better -- I'm not sure if it's a simple cause-and-effect like that -- it might be a little more of an organic connection, with the act of writing and the identity of being a poet mutually helping each other grow and become more secure. Something like that.

Word verification is "ression." Sounds like it should mean something. A word from Shakespeare, maybe. That kind of thing.

Justin Evans said...

I wasn't going to comment until I saw the words verification:

"wingsta"

which made it providence that I write a comment. Much the same providence made me a writer. Feel free to choose any of the following:

You do not choose to be a writer, it chooses you.

My mother used to read Walt Whitman when she was pregnant with me and his expansive sentences, free from the constraints of traditional structure and meter laid waste to my brain. From that point on I could have been nothing else.

When I was three, an old neighbor, a librarian who stole the books nobody would check out, died and left me a collection of poetry books. The first one I read was e.e. cummings' 95 Poems. I guess you could say I was a very lucky kid.

God himself came down and visited my father in the hospital shortly after my mother gave birth and told him that I was to be a poet. When he protested, telling Him I was supposed to be an accountant, God struck him deaf and dumb until my father gave in and enrolled me in my first creative writing workshop at the age of two.

* * *

I think Frank is right. I think people write down what they think professors want to hear. They feel they won't be taken seriously unless writing is a calling or an irresistible force.

The other day I was talking to my sister and I impressed myself by saying: My art doesn't need to be utilitarian. I can live knowing my poetry serves no function, but I need for my life to be utilitarian.

I don't know where it came from, but I think I am going to go with that for a while.

Charles said...

I feel like I have to decide to be a writer every day.