The Work is Not All That
Barrie Jean Borich, RWW Faculty
The Work is Not All That
Barrie Jean Borich
“…the very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life.” —Zadie Smith
What does it mean to have achieved success as a writer? How will you know whether or not you are successful?
If you are preparing to graduate, you are probably thinking—or even worrying—about whether or not that state of being, or social value, or bird with turquoise feathers we call success, awaits you on the other side of those graduation gates. If you are just beginning grad school, you might have come here in pursuit of success because you want to do all you can to place yourself in proximity to accolades and recognition and the power to change worlds with your writing. (Desire for that kind of success was part of why I went to grad school as well.) Those of you in the middle of your degree process might be too immersed in the work right now to think about points of being aside from your next packet or workshop. (Spoiler Alert: if that is where you are, I suggest you stay in that state of mind for as long as possible.) Perhaps, too, some of you are a bit confused, especially in this pandemic time, about whether or not you have actually left the starting gate, and if what you are writing now is in line with what you came here to make.
Wherever you sit on the inevitable time arc of grad school, whatever your reasons for coming to RWW in the first place, whatever you want from what some call “the writing life” and some call “the creative writing industrial complex,” success (our own success, or the apparent success of others) is sometimes soaring and gorgeous, sometimes a messy, defecating flock whose detritus we can’t keep from hitting us in the face. If you are sitting on the edge of your seats waiting for me to reveal the way to achieve big, sexy, public success—relax. That’s not what’s coming here. But you already know that, right?
“If you are sitting on the edge of your seats waiting for me to reveal the way to achieve big, sexy, public success—relax. That’s not what’s coming here. But you already know that, right?”
Many of you will write, publish, and find the audiences who want to read you for many years to come, perhaps because they see themselves for the first time on your pages, or perhaps because you do the seemingly impossible work, especially in these deeply divided times, of carrying us into worlds otherwise closed to us. Maybe one or two of you will became wildly famous, meet Oprah, and make a living from your books. Perhaps one or two of you will find yourself at a university that loves you enough to give you an endowed chair and as many course releases as classes, and will consider your mentoring of burgeoning writers no one else notices to be the kind of community service that earns you promotion. Perhaps you will win all the fellowships every time you apply and spend years on retreat at a villa in Italy, or maybe you will only hit that jackpot now and then. Will any of that constitute the most necessary kind of success?
My point here is that there is a difference between conventional success and what I will call that inner turquoise bird. Conventional success is real, especially in the eyes of your spouses, parents, and creditors. Book deals and awards and academic appointments matter—yes, in the gaze of a society that recognizes documentable achievement, but also to our own sense of well-being. Community success may not make you a household name, but can bring presence and validation to those who might otherwise never see themselves in a book. You may be the rare artist who has never dreamt of any of this, but most of us do wish for all the tangible rewards, and we are not wrong to do so.
We can probably agree that external success is not a bad thing—especially when it offers you the resources and spirit that enable you to keep writing—but all that doesn’t have much to do with what we try to teach you in an MFA program. I don’t want any of you to turn away from rewards when they come your way, but I do want you to remember what is and is not writing. Never assume that receiving accolades is the same thing as making your true work.
Artistic recognition comes to some as a constant flow, and to many more as a cyclical thing—flocks of good fortune traveling into and out of our lives in migration patterns larger than any of us can discern. I get caught up in those ebbs and flows of external success as much as anyone, sometimes even shocking myself at how much professional disappointment matters to me, at least until I return to the list I keep for myself of the private things in the here and now I really do care about most—from small dailies like the simple balance of light and color on the street, or ecstatic walks along an urban shoreline near my home, or love and poodles and visible queer art in the world, or Darjeeling tea served in a pretty teapot—to the biggest thing, which for me is the success of being able to say I am, no matter what, still here, still making this work.
Success is not just recognition, even when there is cash involved, and it’s not just the amazing things people say about your writing, even when there is applause—especially applause from readers who say your story, poem, or essay saved them. Still, even a standing ovation is not enough to keep us writing through the long silent spaces, because, when we are working well, applause is likely the furthest thing from our minds.
“Still, even a standing ovation is not enough to keep us writing through the long silent spaces, because, when we are working well, applause is likely the furthest thing from our minds.”
What is it then, this elusive condition I need some new blue-feathered word to describe? Zadie Smith, in her famous essay on this subject called it “failing better.” 1 Her thinking never stops ringing true for me, no matter how many times I reread her argument. She writes: “The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment. The art is in the attempt, and this matter of understanding-that-which-is-outside-of-ourselves using only what we have inside ourselves amounts to some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you’ll ever do. It is a writer’s duty.”
In other words, the successful writer is one who perfects, in process and page, the art of not sleepwalking. If I were to list my greatest professional successes, I could name the particular book deal with the famous editor, or the year I received two huge artists’ grants at the same time, or getting that good creative writing job and achieving tenure, or the book awards, or that one truly gratifying book review that I have pretty much memorized—though truth be told, I could also list other years, more years, where the opposite of most of these things happened. But lists like these are win-lose binaries and don’t convey what it really means to stick it out as an artist, whether or not you hear the applause.
What really matters are those quiet interior moments when the mind, the fingers, and the screen conspire. (If you are a pencil person, you know how to substitute technologies here.) Success is when you finally know why you’ve kept that artifact on your shelf for so long and also understand how to articulate what matters in that knowing. It’s when, on the page, you are finally able to connect shape, sound, memory, history, love, rage, belief, wit, and comprehension with words that don’t lie, and make space for some deeper truth. It’s when emotion, intellect, design, sound, and language fuse; that’s when the turquoise-feathered bird breaks from your chest, and you feel for a moment that you, too, are flying.
Public kudos give us energy and will, and sometimes even pay the rent, but the work itself is not all that. The work is the making of phrases and sentences that create sound and meaning—all that comes together within us before the audience enters the room. We are successful writers when lyric necessity takes hold and we finally succeed at bringing that perfect string of words to the page.
1 “Fail Better,” The Guardian, 2007.
Barrie Jean Borich is the author of Apocalypse, Darling, which was short-listed for the Lambda Literary Award. Her memoir Body Geographic won a Lambda Literary Award, and her book-length essay, My Lesbian Husband, won the Stonewall Book Award. In addition to her work on the Rainier Writing Workshop faculty, Borich is a professor at DePaul University in Chicago where she directs the interdisciplinary LGBTQ Studies minor and edits Slag Glass City, a journal of the urban essay arts.