Woody Allen once joked that 95% of the work is in turning-up. This book is about that 95% and what stops us from ‘turning up’ as writers — things like feeling we don’t have enough time, or isolation.
This is well and good, and Laraine Herring is an accomplished writer, who’s particularly adept at personal anecdotes designed to lift our spirits and keep us focused on our task. However, after a few hundred pages, what is meant to be inspiring becomes (for me at least) a little wearying. The essential message seems to be that every problem can be solved if you just make enough effort. She tells us over and over things like:
Don’t identify with the trap of writer’s block. Writer’s block is not a concrete thing. It is a concept, which means it is fluid, and you can accept it or not …
All of which is touchingly democratic, but ignores what may in the end be the crucial five percent of the creative equation: Inspiration, talent, motivation. Things that can’t be fitted into the positive thinking remit, nor easily admitted into the college writing programs that Herring’s approach grows out of.
In a sense, Herring wants it both ways. She describes how when her students approach her and ask if they have talent, this is usually because they want her to validate them. But her job is to encourage commitment to learning the craft. Similarly she states:
Your sense of worth as a writer isn’t hanging on what a publisher or agent might or might not do. What are you writing for? Whom are you writing for? Why are you writing in the first place?
And yet peppered throughout her text are slightly overblown statements like:
The longer you write and study writing, the harder it can be to maintain beginner’s mind. There’s now junk in the way; perhaps you’ve completed a twenty-five thousand dollar graduate program, or published four books, or won an esteemed prize …
Which it seems to me, are subtly (if unconsciously) supporting the idea that success is actually measured by getting published, winning prizes, or gaining the right qualifications.
‘Beginners Mind’ is an idea adapted from Zen Buddhism — that sense of freshness we have when we first attempt something. This is an important concept, but in the context of Herring’s book, with it’s free-floating, one size fits all, spiritualism, there’s a danger that it can feel appropriated. And how much more so, when a chapter entitled ‘Sand Paintings’, which begins with a description of Tibetan monks making intricate patterns out of sand, only to be brushed away on completion (as a practice of non-attachment), quickly finesses into a description of Herring losing drafts of her writing when her computer crashes. Although it makes for a neat analogy, consciously doing something knowing it is not going to last, is not the same thing as having to live with the frustration of losing work due to a failure of technology. Herring offers some useful advice about a not uncommon experience for anyone who writes on a computer. But I don’t think this need be immediately turned into a spiritual teaching, which has the flavor of being appropriated by the ego; the very thing the Tibetan monks are working against.
The Chinese say don’t combine inner and outer work. Writing as a practice to develop self-knowledge and even self-transcendence, is ‘inner work’. Writing for publication is ‘outer’ work. Herring seems to misunderstand this, taking an approach to writing as a ‘practice’ (a word she keeps coming back to) akin to a meditation practice, or a yoga practice, whilst continually referencing the outcome of publication.
The potential tension between worldly ambitions and the spiritual life is never discussed. Instead we are offered a series of techniques to get you to the top of the writing ladder. Basically, despite all her disclaimers, Herring is spiritualizing a career fast-track. She does it eloquently, so that if you need a boost when you feel stuck writing an assignment, a letter, a poem or a story, you’ll find lots of encouragement within these pages. But the more challenging question of why you want to be a writer in the first place is never really asked.
Everyone has something to say and it is important for individual well-being that it is expressed as best as it can be. But self-expression (however sincere) doesn’t in itself guarantee writing that people beyond your immediate circle will particularly want to read. To suggest otherwise is potentially very destructive and could wound a lot of vulnerable hearts. It isn’t just a matter of turning-up. Over-encouragement can be a dangerous thing.