top of page

Every writer, "writer," lit mag editor, MFA program person, AWP-goer, should read this

Thursday 3/30/23

From an essay I am writing on joy in life and literature.


Most writers now write to what they perceive as being expectations. They adhere to rules. Sometimes because of a lack of ability. Often because they are not really writers and they’re desperate to be a member of a community that isn’t good for them. They want approval from people who are approving of them because they all do the same thing, and they are more focused on gaining this approval than in writing something that might mean anything to anyone. They are usually scared and limited, but they feed into those limitations and make them more substantial than they have to be. They excel at limiting and beating themselves. This is the foundation of their community, as such, because there is less of a burden to create and create well. Competition is reduced and both disdained and feared.

For a work to possess depth, these people often think it must be joyless, which is as lazy and rote as it gets. Joy is predicated on being open to mystery, the way a child may be. In the best fiction, we never know what will happen next, though when it does happen, it’s not incongruous. It fits. That’s why jazz and fiction are so closely related in my mind. The challenge of the jazz musician is to extemporize his solo, but also for that solo to unfurl as though it were a piece of writing labored over until it was gotten exactly as it should be. There’s both freshness and design. The former is as of its moment as a sunrise; the latter could make Euclid—or Bach—say, “Hey now!”

Writing to perceived expectations is a joyless exercise that makes for joyless reading. A writer should always take one’s cues from one’s characters. They are the tellers of the story in that they reveal their stories to the writer. They both come from within—because they live within that writer—and they come from their own place. To sit with a character and learn their story is an act of joy. One waits until the characters are ready. It’s their show, their call, their lives—not the writer’s life. It’s also an act of trust and faith and an undertaking of opening up one’s self to mystery, to less control for a greater ultimate good. Think of it like when the dad goes into his daughter’s room after the cookout—he doesn’t know exactly how their talk will go. He doesn’t know what she’ll say or how she’ll say it. He doesn’t know what he might be made to feel.

I can no more take a writer seriously who tries to hit certain narrative marks to court some meaningless, essentially non-existent favor, than I can a fifty-year-old person who informs me, as though she is a talking fortune cookie, that the point of life, after all, is to have fun. I end up thinking, “What are you doing?” and “This is not the way to go. This gets no one anywhere. Not you, not me. Not the people you talk to. Not any readers.”

I think of artists in pain who knew what joy is and that's why their art endures. Vincent Van Gogh knew joy. Billie Holiday knew joy. This will perhaps seem an ironic statement, but I don’t believe you can sing “Strange Fruit” as Billie Holiday did if you also don’t have a full, embodied understanding of joy. That power of life, the force of humanness, the need and striving to connect, beyond fun, and even beyond happiness.

Within joy itself is a knowledge of what constitutes pain. Joy isn’t defined by the contrast it makes with pain. Joy doesn’t preclude pain. What it does do, though, is accept pain as something that exists and is to be understood, with grace and strength, for it is part of the equation. Joy is also an act of rising above. The best fiction takes us higher, and for that to occur, it must jolt and remake us—even if that means awaken us to who we are—with surprise and its own crackling energies of life that in turn join with ours—or restart ours.

If a writer is ever thinking, “This is how it’s done, this is how it has to be”—not because the story and the characters say so, but because of the default to the prescriptive tendency, and the peer pressure of the MFA program and the currying of a sycophantic form of favor—they are cooked. It is impossible for that writer to write anything of value. They have no idea of the power of joy. Joy is not happiness, and a piece of writing can make short work of grinding your heart into bits so as to faster move on to your soul, but it is the movement upwards, over, and through—a combo—that is joy; it’s both the process and the better vantage point.

Were there a single reason why we are here, I would say that it is because of the making and sharing of joy. The revealing and the teaching of joy. The writer who writes work that will last is not that writer without it. I wouldn’t even count them as a good faith writer. So how many of even those do we really have right now? And what is there that is actually going to last? Not a lot.

But that can change. It takes time, and more than time it takes commitment, energy, vision, and courage. It takes writing for the right and precious reasons that are suggestive of that scene shared by the father and his child. They are both authors in a way that few writers themselves are, save that they do not put terms of identification to their stories. But they are living in joy, with everything that comes with it, and with the openness that joy requires and joy is.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page