My friend Wendy is working on a masters in creative writing at Bennington College, in fact she’s there right now and loving it. She recently sent me the 2019 commencement speech by Garth Greenwell. It’s about 20 minutes long and if you are any kind of writer, children’s or otherwise, I would urge you to watch it in full (see link below). Otherwise, here are extracts of the main 7 points he makes, except for the last one which I’m quoting in full because each word of it matters. So, if you don’t watch the speech, at least read point no. 7. (I will be writing all seven points on the wall in my office and probably around the edge of my laptop screen, in tiny permanent letters. Perhaps you will find them useful too. Anchors even. For the wobbly days.)
From Garth Greenwell’s address, Being a Writer in America Today:
Hold your friends close
“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.”
Comparison is the devil
“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.”
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.”
The content changes but the anxiety remains the same
“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? … 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.”
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 no magic to this. Sit at your desk and write.”
“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… 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.”
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. “I might as well be selling shoes,” he said. I said before that comparison was the devil, and it is; but really the commodification of art is the devil.
“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 Roomdown 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.”
For more about Garth Greenwell: www.garthgreenwell.com