writerly responsibilities and rewards: words from the wise Dorothy Allison (yesterday, Kelly Writers House)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Dorothy Allison is one of three Kelly Writers House Fellows hosted this semester by Penn professor and poet Julia Bloch.

Yesterday she sat among us, in conversation with us. There, beside Julia, she is.

Oh, I liked her. So very much. She's everything you've been told she will be. Iconoclastic. Irreverent. Touching. A firebrand of deep opinion and great craft cares who may believe in the act of revenge on the page, but only when the author holds him- or herself equally accountable for the unforgivable past. We writers, we survivors, may not be the heroes we think we are, Allison reminds us. We have responsibilities. Work that lasts is work that is rich with a felt sense of responsibility.

Any writer who believes that writing is a mere game—a toss-off and toss-up of the randomly odd, the relentlessly clever, the tried and true brand—must spend a bracing hour and change in the company of Allison. Sitting beside my friend Nathaniel Popkin and just one row ahead of August Tarrier (Jamie-Lee Josselyn waving a hand from the near distance, one of my students a few rows back, Lily Applebaum at the mike ready), I filled my little notebook with Allison's words. I'm going to share a few of them here—transcribed as nearly as I could, but not always verbatim. Spread them, oh ye writers and readers who care.

In response to Julia's questions about craft (comments from across the conversation, gathered here): Craft sharpens the contradictions. It produces prose that takes the reader by the throat. Craft requires writers to read as writers, not as readers, and so we writing readers cannot merely wallow; we must assess. To make a reader care, the writer must keep paring the prose down, constructing the truth, acknowledging one's purpose. You are going for the long reach, not the quick tears. You want to haunt a reader six months on. The more talent you have, the more responsibility you have.

On writing with compassion: Recognize that you will never get it right. Recognize that those who survived, who got out of there alive, are in some ways the cowards, the ones who had to compromise. Hold yourself accountable for the choices you made. Recognize that you have a higher moral authority to tell the story right. This applies, by the way, to both writers of fiction and nonfiction.

On life's purpose: I don't want to be rich. I want a different world. I don't want the hatefulness of this world. I have a conviction about justice and social responsibility, a concept of citizenship at great variance with what I see in this world.

Paradise: is having an audience.

What the world is: We don't know what the world is until it is shown to us in story.

A story, much condensed (forgive me, Dorothy Allison, for this condensed version). In response to a question I asked about when Allison knew teaching was joyful, she first spoke of how she made sure to make teaching as hard for herself as it was for her students (amen to that, oh yes, amen to that), then told a story about one of the most talented students she ever had—a woman who didn't know where sentences began or ended, but knew vivid and had material. For nine weeks, Allison worked within a workshop and outside the workshop with this "baby" writer. That ninth week, they had a conversation about the writer's future. The student writer had a question: How much would she get paid for the stories she wrote? How much for a collection of stories? How much how much how much would she get paid—and how long would it take? Allison painted a picture of the future, spoke of the rewards that aren't numerical, finally confessed, when pushed, that her own most recent collection of words had received an advance of $12,500. "I earn that in tips a month," said this student writer. And that, pretty much, was it. The end of this genius writer's aspirations.

And so, Allison reminded us, one has to have more than a gift. One has to have desire. One has to cherish the audience, the chance to speak, the conversation—for that, in the end, is what matters most, that is the gifted writer's only sure provenance, that is where responsibility begins.

Let's get less caught up in the noise about books and more invested in making extremely fine ones.


Melissa Sarno said...

Now that I have time to properly read and comment on these words, you know how happy they make me. Thank you for making me feel I was there too, listening and learning with you.

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