The Lack of a Writing Calculus

I stood there, waiting, agonizing, worrying.  But he would not be rushed.  He would not speed-read through the story to satisfy my doubts and give me the answer he knew I wanted.

I couldn’t stand in place, so I started to pace his office, going round and round in front of his desk.  He had to like the story.  He had to.  Dr. Sutherland was my academic advisor, had been my professor in three classes over the past two years, and knew how much I wanted to be a writer.  When I’d asked him if he’d read a five-page story I’d recently completed, he agreed.  I appreciated his willingness to read something that had nothing to do with the syllabus or the program.  He was doing me a big favor.  But now, with me wearing out the beige carpet in his small corner office, perhaps he regretted his decision.

Finally, he flipped over the last page of the story and placed it, face-up, on his desk, strewn with ungraded essays, a half-eaten ham sandwich, and a mug of cold black coffee.

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I stopped pacing, waited for him to tell me what he thought.  Outside his door, all was quiet in the hall.  It was late afternoon on a chilly western New York November day, the trees beyond his window going bare for the coming winter.

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I could stand it no longer.  I coughed.  “Well?  Do you think it’s any good?”

He smiled, sat back in his swivel chair, put his hands behind his head.  He even glanced out the window for good measure.

“You know,” he said, “writing’s a funny thing, Mike.  A funny thing . . .”

I waited for him to continue.  He didn’t.  Was he trying to torture me?  Of course, I knew his idiosyncrasies and his mannerisms well.  I’d seen them on display in the classroom many times, and, generally, I liked them.  But not here.  Not now.  My heart rate increased, and I just looked at him.  I was a junior in college, but at that moment, I felt eight years old, a child seeking the approval of a respected and admired uncle.

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“I remember when I was your age,” he said.  There was a knowing look in his eyes.  “Long time ago . . . I wanted to be a writer.  Poet, really.  I’d write poems about nature, love, hate, war, peace–you name it.  I tried it all, experimented with form and language.  Sent some of my work off to journals.  Made my own chapbook.  And yeah, I’d share my poems with others, ask them what you asked me just now.  ‘Is it any good?’  ‘Do you like it?'”  He smiled again.  “Well.  In my case, I guess the answer was clear enough.  I’m here now, right?”  He spread his arms, looked around his office.  “I’m not out on Walden Pond writing prize-winning verse.  But then–maybe the answer wasn’t clear.  Not really.  I stopped submitting after just a few rejections, told myself I had no future in it.  I got my PhD, and here I am, teaching writing.  It’s the path I chose, that’s all.”

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I nodded.  I appreciated the disclosure, but what was he saying?  Where was he going with this?  Was he trying to tell me, in a roundabout, oblique manner, that I wasn’t any good as a writer?

“Writing’s not like physics,” he said.  “There’s no writing calculus, Mike.  There are no formulas.  It’s not two plus two equals four.  It’s an art.  It’s not a science.  There is no piece of writing, in the history of the world, that is universally admired as perfect, or even great.  Shakespeare has his critics.  Hemingway.  Show me a perfect novel.  To Kill a Mockingbird?  Maybe.  I’d sign off on that one.  But I know colleagues–respected colleagues–who dismiss it as overrated.”

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He paused, as I reflected on his words.  Through the window, behind him, I saw a flock of geese, flying low, their honking audible even through the glass and the walls.  Flying south for the winter–if not today, then tomorrow or next week.  I felt a shiver, thinking of the long, unending stretch of cold that lay ahead, the gray months of snow and frost and winds whipping in off the lake.

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“Look,” Dr. Sutherland said, sitting upright in his chair now.  “My opinion of your story doesn’t mean very much.  Your opinion does.  Is this your best work?  Have you edited it two times over?  Three?  Four?  Have you chopped every extraneous word?  Did you write the story from a personal place?  Does it matter to you?  Those are the things that count.  Everything else is just an opinion.  Personal taste.  Some people like Faulker.  Others prefer Fitzgerald.  There’s not one right answer.”

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He shook his head.  “That’s the beauty, and the torment, of creative writing.”

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I like to think I’ve matured as a writer since my junior year in college.  I like to believe I’m not as reliant on the approval of others, not as much of a worrier over the work I produce.  But, truth be told, I often still struggle with the same things.  Sometimes when I write a blog post, or finish a new short story or chapter in a novel, I ask myself, “Yeah, but is it any good?  Does it work?  Will anyone really get it, or have I failed to bring out the drama, the themes, the motivations, and the meaning?  Is it flat?  Does it just sit there, lifeless, on the page?”

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It’s something Marc Kuslanski would rail against.  Marc always seeks the right answer, the factual solution to the problem.  Without a formula in place to “prove” that a piece of writing is first-rate, that a scene works, that a character resonates, Marc would quickly grow frustrated.

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I think, at times, all writers have a little Marc Kuslanski in them.  I know I do.  When writing a particular scene is akin to having a dental hygienist scrape the plaque from my teeth, when the words seem stuck and unwilling to come out, when the characters perform their own version of the literary silent treatment, I find myself wishing for a true, definable, and irrefutable writing calculus.

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In moments like this, when I can’t seem to overcome the inevitable insecurities and doubts of the writing trade, I  take a step back, force myself to remember the conversation I had with my academic advisor on that late fall day in the 1990s, as the twentieth century took its last, dying gasps before giving way to a new millennium.  I remember his words, his advice, and I try my best to apply them.

*********************

As I turned to leave his office, Dr. Sutherland held up his hand.

“I wanted to thank you for sharing your story with me, Mike,” he said.  “I know–believe me, I do–that it’s not easy.”

I didn’t know if he was finished, so I stood there a moment longer.

“Keep at it,” he said.  “Don’t give up.  Keep writing.”

“Thanks,” I said.  I smiled.  There was nothing else he might have said that would have meant as much.

Walking out into the fading November afternoon, the sun already sinking low to the west, I felt as though I were walking on air.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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