Tag Archives: Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Pay Your Dues

After his victory over the tempter in the wilderness, Jesus returned in the “power of the spirit.” In other words, Christ had to face temptation before the full power of the spirit was available to him.

Likewise, we may need to prove ourselves ready for the gifts of inspiration.

During graduate school, at a party after a reading, I was talking to Sara Vogan and C. E. Poverman (alias Buzz). Sara was my friend and fellow student. Buzz had come to give the reading. Sara asked Buzz, who had finished Iowa’s writers’ workshop program a few years before, how long it usually took graduates before they sold a book. Buzz replied that even the writers who succeed most always take ten years from the time they got serious about writing.

He was dead right, I’ve observed. And who can count the ones who fail or drop out along the way?

I began to write in earnest soon after I realized my dad, not I, was the musician in our family, and I was the storyteller.

By “in earnest” I mean every chance I could. If the workdays burnt me out, I would write all weekend. If kids demanded my weekends, I rose early and wrote.

I hauled a wife and baby to Iowa largely because I imagined earning a graduate degree that qualified me to teach writing at a college would allow me more time to write than most professions would.

I don’t mean to whine. If anybody sacrificed because of my choices, it was my family, not me. My life has been a great adventure.

What I do mean is this:

If you want the spirit’s help with your writing, the spirit may require that you make writing your top priority.

I heard about a South Korean man who instantly became a hero of mine. Having been imprisoned in a North Korean labor camp for some political crime, he and another former prisoner wrote and were producing an operatic musical about those camps. They found potential backers, but the South Korean government pressured the backers to withdraw and thereby avoid public outcry that could damage economic cooperation with North Korea.

So this producer mortgaged his kidney to pay for the production.

Let’s think about him when we lament missing Saturday morning volleyball in favor of writing.

Do It Right

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a treatise on attitude.

When I first read the book, I was home in San Diego for Christmas break, from my graduate studies at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Laura, my first wife, myself, and our newborn Darcy had driven from San Diego to Iowa in August and returned in December in a Ford delivery van. It was the stripped-down model, with no insulation, which I had vowed to remedy before driving back to a place that has winter.

My original plan was to line the walls inside with insulation and cover it with cardboard. But while reading Zen and the Art, which taught dedication to care and quality in all efforts, I couldn’t let myself get away with that. So I bought a pile of redwood bender board and spent a whole week on the project. As long as I kept the van, looking at what I had done uplifted me.

Whether our current task is raising kids or counseling friends or writing stories or poems, we owe it to ourselves, families, friends, readers, and God, to use our gifts with care and dedication.

If we writers don’t frequently ask ourselves “Can I do better?” and labor over every clumsy word; if we don’t give our hearts to our stories and ask ourselves at least once on every page, “Am I being honest or just recycling clichés of language or story?”; if we’re not willing to revise until our brains reel from the effort, we’ll be hacks.

The world doesn’t need anymore hacks.

So, given that our tasks are many and our lives are harried, how do we make the time to do everything we do as unto the Lord?

Writing and the Spirit, the book, has some powerful suggestions.