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by Ellen Santasiero | July 5, 2023

Photo by Shaojie on Unsplash

In Montreal recently for a writing retreat, I paid for a latte at the Café Olimpico by tapping my VISA on a card reader. The window seats at the Olimpico were deep and inviting due to the café’s thick sandstone walls, but I was there to work, so I settled at a small marble-topped table in the back. I got out my notebook, sipped my coffee, and continued work on a short story draft I’d started a few months before.

I never did use Canadian currency, or even exchange for it, while I was there, as it was tap tap tap everywhere I went. I could pay later, and so I did.

Not so in the land of creative writing.

There is no kicking the cost down the road to remit next month, or year. It’s a cash economy there, and too, you must pay up front. With your time, your attention, and your energy.

But even when we have an abundance of those coins, we aren’t always able to pay.

In 1995 when I was a beginning creative writer, I worked a nine-to-five as a graphic designer. After a few years, I asked my boss if I could reduce my hours so I could have Fridays off. I wanted to use that day to write. My boyfriend was OK with my using the spare bedroom in the house we shared, and so I set up a desk and chair in there for myself. Did I go in there and write?

Reader, I did not. Even though I had taken a pay cut, I did not use my Fridays to write.

What held me back?

I read poet Kathleen Norris’s book about acedia, the mental or spiritual torpor that plagued monks and mystics committed to the disciplined contemplative life, but their lot didn’t resonate with me. People suffering from acedia simply do not care. I did care. I deeply yearned to write. For me, the obstacle was resistance, described in rather spartan register by Steven Pressfield in The War of Art.

“Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves,” wrote Pressfield. “We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids. ‘Peripheral opponents,’ as Pat Riley used to say when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers. Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.”

The book helped me. There was something in knowing that I just had the ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill resistance that every other human being possesses.

But other things helped me show up regularly to my creative writing practice, too.

I recently led a workshop called “Tying the Knot: Committing to Your Writing Life” during which I revealed to seventeen eager-but-beleaguered souls that:

1. I set a timer for ten minutes and tell myself that all I have to do is write for ten minutes. I can do most anything for ten minutes! When the timer goes off, I’m always in, and I stay in.

2. I have three writers’ groups, two for critique, and one for submitting work. These groups not only give me constructive feedback and moral support, but they keep me accountable by holding me to my deadlines.

3. Finally, I regularly read at open mics or arrange to be a featured reader. There is nothing like the fear of humiliation to motivate oneself.

Writing is hard. It’s damned hard. But we’re not alone. We talk about that all the time at The Forge, and we’re continually inspired by the effect of The Forge’s creative writing community on the Smithys—they up their commitment to their writing lives each month.

I got a lot done on that short story in the café, and in other French colonial style restaurants and cafés in Montreal, and now my draft is off, on time, to an editor for her feedback. To achieve that goal, I paid up front—ka-ching!—with time, attention, and energy.

I must say, it helps to write in a beautiful old city, too.

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Updated: Jun 17, 2023

by Irene Cooper | June 6, 2023

cracked stone ecru-colored wall with dark blotches
photo by Hannah O'Leary

The poet Carl Phillips won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his collection, Then the War. Phillips is a favorite poet—sensual, surprising, and cerebral. He’s a Black man, and gay, and has embodied and explored those identities throughout his body of writings, starting with his first collection, In the Blood, published in 1992. In 1992, AIDS is rampant, and riots break out in Los Angeles after four police officers are acquitted of the beating of Rodney King.

Bouncing around Google just after Phillips won the Big P, I came across a video of the poet reading his poem, “Dirt Being Dirt.” Obvious to say, but it bears repeating: A poem is one thing on the page, and another on the tongue. The last line hits hard, and differently, across experience: “You broke it. Now wear it broken.”

Some weeks ago, Sherrilyn Ifill, who for ten years served as the head of the Legal Defense Fund— the non-profit civil rights organization and law firm founded by Thurgood Marshall—gave the annual Robert B. Silvers lecture at the New York Public Library, entitled, “How America Ends and Begins Again.” Friends, it is an example of rhetoric such as we have not seen in some time—honest (brutal, even), informative, and, impossibly, hopeful.

I’ve seen a lot of references, lately, in creative nonfiction and elsewhere, to kintsugi, the Japanese art of finishing the mended seams of broken pottery with gold: Cracks not only visible, but celebrated. It’s often difficult, however, to celebrate our fractures and fissures, our breaks. But there are other, perhaps more practical responses.

Ifill talks about listening to the people in the margins, the falling off places, if you want to hear the truth. She offers, too, a number of actionable suggestions on what to do with that truth. Phillips writes:

The orchard was on fire, but that didn’t stop him from slowly walking straight into it, shirtless, you can see where the flames have foliaged—here, especially—his chest. Splashed by the moon, it almost looks like the latest proof that, while decoration is hardly ever necessary, it’s rarely meaningless:

Writers sometimes worry they have nothing to write about, that their writing is merely decorative, or otherwise unworthy of attention. I would argue that the pull to write indicates the need to write, and a need for that writing. Creative writing takes courage, as well as time and energy and fortitude. That is, if the writing is trying to get at something. Which is not to say that truth is always the catastrophic fracture: One may crack a joke, or break into a grin, or bust out laughing.

The bold, golden seams of a vase or bowl that has undergone kintsugi suggest to me that the piece is stronger, now, at the site of the break—and that the piece was worth the attention to repair it. Ultimately, we may not want our revisions to be exhibited quite so nakedly in our work. But as I read through my first draft and start to be aware of the various fault lines and fires, I understand that this is where the beauty begins, in the attention to the unfinished, needful edge.

This is where I’ll learn how to wear it broken.

Learn more about how to invest in and develop your creative writing at The Forge. Already a Smithy? Go write.

Kintsugi treated black bown with gold seams on a mat of concentric indigo circles on top of a wooden plank surface, under a night sky with a full moon obscured by clouds

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by Mike Cooper | May 7, 2023

Once we have passably answered the question of why we write (or at least have stopped losing sleep over it), we run smack into the next question: Who am I writing for?

If you already have an answer to that, I encourage you to stop reading this right now and go on with your happy life. Bake a cake. Plant some flowers. Read a book. Go and write to whomever your audience may be.

If you’re still here, you’ve probably—like me—been wrestling with this question for a long while. You may have started out—like me—writing for your parents, or a sibling, or a friend. Maybe you still do. When we learn to write in school, we write for our teacher (Mrs. Frazier). Then come love letters to a significant other (Mary Beth Hagedorn). Maybe a letter to the editor (Fix the damn pothole on 3rd Street!). Some people write to themselves, some to an imaginary being.

I believe that all writing is good writing (like violin practice), so even if we fill journal after journal with our thoughts and observations and then stuff them in a trunk in the attic (or burn them in the back yard) never to be seen by another living soul, I think it’s still beneficial.

To “publish” means (according to Merriam Webster) “to make generally known; to disseminate to the public; to produce or release for distribution.” So, if we’re going to “disseminate to the public,” who the hell is “the public?” Is it the nameless, faceless crowd in the dark theater? Is it “Everyman?” Is it a jury of your peers? Is it anyone willing to listen?

Some people say that you must write, first and foremost, for yourself. But does that mean that you are writing to yourself? Some people say to write to one (external) person, whether real or made up. Some people say to write to an actual “audience”—perhaps a fan base or like-minded individuals. John Steinbeck shared this little bit of wisdom:

“Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death, and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn't exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person—and write to that one.”

Mary Karr keeps a bell jar on her desk filled with a collection of small, surreal skulls. She says this is who she writes for (along with an assortment of pictures of famous authors she has on her writing room walls).

I usually write for my wife, Irene, because she is the person I most want to impress in the world and whose feedback is most important to me. But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I write to a complete stranger, or a younger version of me, or someone else completely.

I think that no matter who you write for, you should consider how your writing will be of benefit to them—how your questions can help them to see the world a different way. Don’t tell them something they already know.

And, in order to overcome “Editor’s Block,” the two most important things for me are:

1) To write to someone who encourages and loves you.

2) Not to attempt to write to everyone.

So maybe put a little mirror on your writing desk, or a picture of a loved one, or a famous author that you respect, or a stuffed animal. And consider these words from Margaret Atwood:

Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for when they scrawl their names in the snow.
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