Be Kind to Writers

Alegria’s poignant, passionate comment on my David Foster Wallace memorial post reawakens some questions about our interpersonal connections and responsibilities as writers, both to other writers and to our audience (who are often the same people). As her experience suggests, artists require tremendous ego-strength to endure public hostility or incomprehension of the offerings they bring forth, with pain, from their intimate depths. On the other hand, that self-preservation instinct easily devolves into a frantic scramble for significance at the expense of others, or a type of writing that repels with its aggressive brilliance and drives away the community that the writer needs. I have been guilty of both.

No stranger to the Hobbesian jungle of academia, the award-winning poet Gabriel Gudding posted on his blog some months ago, under the heading “A Rationale for Writing Poetry with a Kind Mind”, this welcome proposal to reunite the aesthetic and the moral. It followed a debate on his blog about whether the Bollingen Prize committee should have denied Ezra Pound this prestigious award because of his pro-Nazi radio broadcasts. Gudding rejects the “high Modernist” ideology that a poem can be judged objectively, as a pure aesthetic object, apart from the moral positions of both the writer and the reader, and how they are implicated in systems of oppression. Postmodernists are often called cynics and relativists, but Gudding finds that insight into power relations can actually lead writers in a more humane direction:

If the aesthetic is closely federated with the ethical, the practice of verbal and cognitive skills necessarily entails the practice and modeling of dialogic emotional skills such as forthrightnesss, forgiveness, renunciation and lovingkindness. Conceiving the aesthetic as inseparable from ethical questions is especially important for anyone who considers herself a practitioner of “poetry” writing, a genre culturally perceived as all too often marked, since the Modernist moment, by a clear fetish of isolative emotionalism, reactive “expression” of affect, monologic narcissism and aesthetic preciosity, over civically responsive and ethical concerns.

This genre is in fact so fraught with symbolic violence, with its social economies relying so heavily on disincentives toward the development a warm vibration, that you kinda havetah wonder if poets in particular shouldn’t richly buy into an overt and activist devotion to lovingkindness as a means of proactively countermanding the profound brutality of this genre.

No reason that poets should continue to see themselves as exempt from normative socioemotional economies. Our imaginative, cognitive, and linguistic skills must be founded in an overt and almost activist devotion to the good. It’s an old fashioned and conflicted term, but by “the good” one might mean those actions and attitudes that shape and support the cultivation of goodwill at both civic and interpersonal levels. In fact, I straight up tell my students that to write exceptionally well, to think creatively and perspicuously, it is necessary to have a mind that is rooted in the good and characterized by kindness and tenderness. You don’t need to be a jerk to write well — tho I can see how folks might think so, given that “being a jerk” is an effective tactic for consecration….

On the other hand I think it’s probably true that certain writing communities have throughout the history of letters helped in the restructuring of reactive, harmful, automatic (that is to say knee-jerk) cognitive and socio-emotional habits. I would in fact go so far as to argue that the tactical modeling of positive affect styles has been a principle function of certain writing circles throughout the last three centuries (I think immediately of certain positive affect styles modeled by NY School folk, e.g., jubilation, rejoicing, attentiveness, renunciation [of authoritarianism both aesthetic and political in particular]). By forwarding subaltern positive affect styles, these circles have probably time and again exercised the power to re-calibrate an imaginary and reformulate an affective milieu. Because the ideologic binds to us principally through affect and emotion, becoming aware of the functionality of affect in one’s life, and actively cultivating helpful affect states, could be considered a social responsibility, if not a civic duty.

And though it is not a principle reason for doing so, the active cultivation of a loving mindstate will almost certainly improve one’s own writing. My thinking in this is in accord with Emerson’s who writes in “Friendship” that “Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection.” Emerson saw in 1841 what social scientists have recently begun studying with hard data: cognition and emotion cannot be separated; an open, vibrant mind is predicated on an open, vibrant heart. It is a fact that no longer can be pedagogically ignored: people learn better and write better within environments that are positive, humorous, and filled with genuine warmth.

Following Emerson, such a mind, a kind mind, is more likely to be sharp and easily concentrated. It is, further, more likely to be flexible, light, ductile, malleable, plastic, and creative. The virtues are inherently dialogic, in the Freierian sense, and a mind that actively practices the virtues will inevitably become invested with confidence, courage, straightforwardness, honesty, wonder, determination, discipline, concentration, forgiveness, patience, tolerance, renunciation, sympathetic joy, compassion, lovingkindness, generosity, and equanimity. Such a mind is willing to take the risks necessary to effectively write and think and act in the face of adversity. Such a mind is to better able to retain the capacity to be surprised. Such a mind is better able to remain responsive to the variety of worlds, both textual and actual, that it will encounter. This is the perfect mind to cultivate in the transtemporal worldwide writing seminar and the transhistorical literary commune we sometimes call humanity.

Gudding’s first collection, A Defense of Poetry, is a work of mad genius, combining satire, invective, childish babble, and surreal imagery to puncture the vanity of violent ideologies. It also contains a lot of farting, and I approve of that. Buy it now.

New Poems by Conway: “Chill” and “Meditation Room”

My pen pal “Conway”, who is serving 25-to-life in California for receiving stolen goods, returns this month with two striking new poems. He writes that “Meditation Room” was composed during a recent stretch in solitary confinement.


Prisoners of lost sands
swing upon a string
of pearls becoming strands.
Remnants of time;
Like: Cheap laundry,
strung up on the line;
to chafe in the weather…

The Sun has blinked
His suspicious eye
once again–
darkness falls on all…

That heavy piss-stained kiss
was unable to fend off
the wind’s bite
and its whistle, cold embrace,
greedy fingers
frostier than jealousy…

While mountains drift away
from these windblown years
our sandbottles treasure
contains an epic measure…

In this moment
that last breath
or, first draft inhaled
when time accelled
before you and I laughed
then a cry expelled…

In this noiseless silence
that could wake concrete
the quiet was complete
it would take only a whisper
to break this spell;
But me
I’d like to yell…


Meditation Room
-Yoga 101-

There’s no place like–
Here, in the meditation Rooms
we are on our–

Relax, set aside your thoughts for a moment
adjust to the surrounding sounds.
The breeze flows over your body
at an abnormal velocity, all day
all night, it whispers, with the same exacting force.

Let this sound comfort your mind
it will not change–
it is there to fill your Lungs desire.
Now, tune into the jingling bell notes
of brass keys, chains on hips
as they Rhythmically flow into your vibrating eardrums
then calmly fade away (isn’t this serene)

Think warm happy thoughts, as
the cold Concrete walls, caress
your sense of claustrophobia.
No need to panic, it will do no-good
you’re not imagining this paranoia
you are Dead-locked inside, from the outside.

There is No-way
that you can open the thick solid steel doors.
Even in your wildest of dreams.
So, maintain my fellow prisoners;
Embrace your incarceration.
Enjoy the solitude of this tomb
            inside your Meditation Room.

Reginald Shepherd, 1963-2008

Reginald Shepherd, the acclaimed poet and essayist, died of cancer on Sept. 10. The Poetry Foundation has posted a moving tribute with comments from dozens of writers who were mentored or influenced by him.

I had fallen into a deep darkness this year due to a blurring of the boundaries between fiction, art, therapy, prayer, and real life. I was on a quest for that elusive thing called “reality”, which only God delivers, but I tried to conjure it on command between the pages of my notebook, only to find my characters wringing their hands about their own insubstantiality (a problem that was really mine, not theirs). Remembering the “high” of inspiration, when unprecedented closeness to God had coincided with a new gift for writing fiction, I thought writing was the cause rather than the effect of that vanished glory. I wanted justice to be done, but despaired that it was possible anywhere outside my imagination–then wept because my literary voodoo dolls didn’t cause real pain.

Shepherd’s last book of essays, Orpheus in the Bronx, shone a light that led me out of the tunnel. He championed the self-sufficiency of art against those who would make it the servant of a political agenda. If you want to change the world, go out and do something in the world, he said. Art is the place uncolonized by programs and definitions, where the ineffable intersects with the concrete, but is never wholly contained by it. Out of these imperfections of language comes a fruitful longing, a perpetual openness to new creation. As Shepherd wrote in his essay “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Coat: Nuances of a Theme by Stevens”:

The chasm between language and being, the inability of any naming to be the true name of the thing, is one that can be broached in many ways: at one extreme is scripture or dogma, which proclaims its names to be the literal equivalent of the thing; at the other is pure linguistic play (what Julia Kristeva calls unlimited semiosis), which neither claims nor seeks any such correspondence, for the rules of a game are unabashedly arbitrary. Between the two lies poetry, which combines the will to such an identity, the determination to speak the true names of things, with the awareness of the impossibility of such an endeavor, that the departure of the thing leaves us with only the name. That will is the guarantee of poetry’s seriousness; that awareness is the seal of its probity. (p.176)

I was in the same room as Reginald Shepherd at AWP this January and I was too self-conscious to say hello to him, and now he is dead. Folks, go out there and tell your favorite writers that they’ve made a difference in your life.

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

David Foster Wallace hanged himself on Friday.

As with many true innovators, his critics were as passionate as his fans. Some hailed his experimental prose style and his ear for the polyphonic babble of consumer culture. Other readers were frustrated by the tortured self-consciousness of his meta-fictional devices, or repelled by the world he showed us, in which psychological trauma collides with air-brushed entertainment to produce the grotesque.

All these reactions have some truth to them. DFW pushed the limits of consciousness and language, perhaps at his own expense, and the products of such a Promethean struggle are always unsettling and sometimes, in artistic terms, failures. Did he feel that way about any of his work? Did he wonder whether the pain of exploration had been for nothing?

DFW is most famous for his massive novel Infinite Jest, a dystopian commentary on addictive entertainment and environmental destruction, in which most of the plot takes place in the footnotes. But I mourn today for the writer who gave us extraordinary glimpses of grace in two short prose pieces: “Good People”, published last year in the New Yorker, and a section toward the end of his book Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

It chills me to think that someone could understand sin and redemption with such piercing vision, and be able to write brilliantly about it, yet not think his life was worth living. That is, after all, the pursuit I have broken my heart over for the past year. One could repudiate the goal, but what else is there that will not also disappoint us? Perhaps the only lesson is that there are casualties even in the good fight.

“Good People” is a perfectly crafted story about Christian teens facing an unwanted pregnancy. DFW sets us up to expect all the usual cliches and then gives us a genuinely startling breakthrough at the very end. We realize, along with the protagonist, how much of our life is spent in the fog of our own self-serving assumptions about other people. Like him, we are convicted of sin at the very moment that we are given the hope of mercy (and thank God, no sooner).

I remember thinking, when I finished this story, “I hope DFW is happy that he wrote something this great. I hope he recognizes how special it is,” because I have looked into the black hole of my inability to be satisfied with my work. I probably couldn’t write a story this good (hopefully someday I will), but would I be happy even if I had? If not, is that a reason to stop writing? One of DFW’s obsessions was questioning the whole idea of happiness, not only the distractions and intoxicants that we mistake for it, but the quintessential American notion that we are entitled, if not obligated, to pursue it in deadly earnest.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is an uneven collection of stories, essays, and meta-fictional sketches, sometimes shifting genres mid-story. Its themes are loosely woven together by interspersed excerpts from fictional interviews with some repellent yet oddly vulnerable characters–men who reveal their perversions and strategies for sexual exploitation, with a mix of self-justifying bravado and confessional self-loathing.

The second moment of grace I mentioned comes here, as one man recounts second-hand his former girlfriend’s story of how she was almost raped. At the moment she thought she was going to die, she channeled unconditional love for her abductor and he let her go, not understanding himself why he was doing it. But we see all this through the filter of the narrator who treated her badly and can’t quite bring himself to respect her story, because of what it would imply for his own life. This is exactly how Christ-like goodness looks in a fallen world–not surrounded by sentimental plaudits, but slightly ridiculous, a bit incredible, even (if we are honest) unwelcome to the point of provoking our cruelty. I’m reminded of Shusaku Endo’s novels Deep River and The Girl I Left Behind.

DFW had a maddening habit of leaving his stories unfinished (The Broom of the System ends mid-sentence, and I’ve never been able to figure out the ending of Infinite Jest) or collapsing them into anguished commentary about his failure to be authentic in the writing process. Did his glimpses of transcendence make the disconnect between writing and reality more acutely unbearable? When a writer sees God, the real God who is “not this, not that”, he falls speechless, or speaks and hates his speech for being less real than what he has seen. And what is a writer without words? What makes him real?

David, I pray for you, I thank you for looking into the abyss on our behalf, and I pray that you can hear this poem:

from The Man Watching
by Rainer Maria Rilke
trans. by Edward Snow

…How small that is, with which we wrestle,
what wrestles with us, how immense,
were we to let ourselves, the way things do,
be conquered thus by the great storm,–
we would become far-reaching and nameless.

What we triumph over is the Small,
and the success itself makes us petty.
The Eternal and Unexampled
will not be bent by us.
This is the Angel, who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when his opponent’s sinews
in that contest stretch like metal,
he feels them under his fingers
like strings making deep melodies.

Whomever this Angel overcame
(who so often declined the fight),
he walks erect and justified
and great out of that hard hand
which, as if sculpting, nestled round him.
Winning does not tempt him.
His growth is: to be the deeply defeated
by ever greater things.

    from The Book of Images (New York: North Point Press, 1991)

Stuart Kestenbaum: “Prayer for the Dead”

The column below is reprinted by permission from American Life in Poetry, a project of the Poetry Foundation.

American Life in Poetry: Column 181


Stuart Kestenbaum, the author of this week’s poem, lost his brother Howard in the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. We thought it appropriate to commemorate the events of September 11, 2001, by sharing this poem. The poet is the director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine.

Prayer for the Dead

The light snow started late last night and continued
all night long while I slept and could hear it occasionally
enter my sleep, where I dreamed my brother
was alive again and possessing the beauty of youth, aware
that he would be leaving again shortly and that is the lesson
of the snow falling and of the seeds of death that are in everything
that is born: we are here for a moment
of a story that is longer than all of us and few of us
remember, the wind is blowing out of someplace
we don’t know, and each moment contains rhythms
within rhythms, and if you discover some old piece
of your own writing, or an old photograph,
you may not remember that it was you and even if it was once you,
it’s not you now, not this moment that the synapses fire
and your hands move to cover your face in a gesture
of grief and remembrance.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by Stuart Kestenbaum. Reprinted from “Prayers & Run-on Sentences,” Deerbook Editions, 2007, by permission of Stuart Kestenbaum. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Flannery O’Connor Appreciation Week (Part 3)

“Last spring I talked at [this school], and one of the girls asked me, ‘Miss O’Connor, why do you write?’ and I said, ‘Because I’m good at it,’ and at once I felt a considerable disapproval in the atmosphere. I felt that this was not thought by the majority to be a high-minded answer; but it was the only answer I could give. I had not been asked why I write the way I do, but why I write at all; and to that question there is only one legitimate answer.

“There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift. It is the nature of fiction not to be good for much unless it is good in itself.

“A gift of any kind is a considerable responsibility. It is a mystery in itself, something gratuitous and wholly undeserved, something whose real uses will probably always be hidden from us. Usually the artist has to suffer certain deprivations in order to use his gift with integrity. Art is a virtue of the practical intellect, and the practice of any virtue demands a certain asceticism and a very definite leaving-behind of the niggardly part of the ego. The writer has to judge himself with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s severity. The prophet in him has to see the freak. No art is sunk in the self, but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made….

“St. Thomas [Aquinas] called art ‘reason in making.’ This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if it is unpopular today, it is because reason has lost ground among us. As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless, and that is only done by the violence of a single-minded respect for the truth….

“One thing that is always with the writer–no matter how long he has written or how good he is–is the continuing process of learning to write. As soon as the writer ‘learns to write,’ as soon as he knows what he is going to find, and discovers a way to say what he knew all along, or worse still, a way to say nothing, he is finished. If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.”

       –“The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), pp. 81-83.

Flannery O’Connor Appreciation Week (Part 2)

“People are always complaining that the modern novelist has no hope and that the picture he paints of the world is unbearable. The only answer to this is that people without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won’t survive the ordeal.

“People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.”

        –“The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), pp. 77-78.

Flannery O’Connor Appreciation Week (Part I)

“In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing, and he is free to use it. I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery….

“It may well be asked, however, why so much of our literature is apparently lacking in a sense of spiritual purpose and in the joy of life, and if stories lacking such are actually credible. The only conscience I have to examine in this matter is my own, and when I look at stories I have written I find that they are, for the most part, about people who are poor, who are afflicted in both mind and body, who have little–or at best a distorted–sense of spiritual purpose, and whose actions do not apparently give the reader a great assurance of the joy of life.

“Yet how is this? For I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that. I don’t think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction….

“My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. In some cases, these writers may be unconsciously infected with the Manichean spirit of the times and suffer the much-discussed disjunction between sensibility and belief, but I think that more often the reason for this attention to the perverse is the difference between their beliefs and the beliefs of their audience. Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock–to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

        –“The Fiction Writer and His Country,” in Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), pp. 30-34.