(The Writer's Chronicle, published by AWP, is one of the major journals of record in the American creative writing industry—I read it for the essays and the classified ads (contests, calls for submission etc). This regular column will comment on some of the essays published in each issue. The essays are, sadly, readable online only by paid-up AWP members, so my commentaries will begin with an explanation of each essay's main argument.)
Nancy Bunge, in February's Writers Chronicle, has written an essay that I wish I could wholeheartedly support. The essay is about three things I love: classic literature, writing advice, and ethical ideals. I should be the ideal reader.
Bunge extracts from Nathaniel Hawthorne's work a general ethos for the successful writer: honesty and openness.
Hawthorne believes the successful author tells the truth as completely as he or she sees it.
Hawthorne's stories, Bunge tells us, shows his readers that a desire for fame, or altering what one would truly say in favour of what the crowd seems to want, leads only to despair and embitterment. And yet, it is not simply a question of retreating, Franzen-like, to seclusion. The successful writer must also remain open to the world: “a writer who strives to control his or her work risks strangling it.”
… producing good literature requires the confidence and the honesty to give oneself over to the process of interacting with nature, other people, and the page.
“Openness,” as Bunge describes it, feels indeed like a key quality of writing well. This is particularly important if you are like me someone who cares a lot of about formal design. I want the ending of my stories and novel chapters to really work, and so I spend a lot of time weaving in elements and building up climaxes. And yet, despite all that head work, the actual joy of writing is letting the sentences come from nowhere, the character's or the narrator's voice appearing in the hand that moves the pen.
So far, so good. What's my problem with the essay? Well, Bunge does not only assert the importance of self-reliance and openness, but, unfortunately, she contrasts these virtues with the supposed sin of ambition.
Those who seek fame, validation, control, domination, and triumph will never write well…
This is a beautiful sentiment, but it's just not true. Even a cursory knowledge of famous writers's biographies reveals that Shakespeare, Keats, Woolf, Hemingway, Baldwin and many others were extremely ambitious. Whitman and Shaw anonymously reviewed their own work. Nabokov wrote tetchy letters to magazines who appeared not to grasp his greatness. The poet Donald Hall has written a very compelling, very moving essay, Poetry and Ambition, arguing that the problem with poets today is their very lack of ambition.
Great writers, somehow, seem able to do both things at once. This is the paradox that I wished Bunge's essay had explored. Great writers are certainly able to retreat deep into themselves while writing, but, when the writing time is over for the day, they make sure their work gets read.