(Because You Asked: A Book of Answers on the Art & Craft of the Writing Life. Sandpoint, ID: Lost Horse Press, 2015)
I have a deep appreciation for writers. Our lives and talents are wildly diverse; we are poets, novelists, essayists, journalists; introverts and extroverts; storytellers and diarists – we are the voice of imagination, the truth-tellers and fabulists that define the ethos of our time. The process of writing is often inexplicable, occasionally tortured and unfailingly interesting from an outsider’s point of view (if they only knew how much time is actually spent staring blankly at a sadly unsullied pad of paper or computer screen). Staring aside, the writer’s practice is as varied as those who partake in it, with no one process or outcome defining the norm. Ask ten writers about how they pursue their craft and you will receive ten (or fifteen!) different answers, each one of them compelling and utterly distinct. Because we are masters/slaves of the intangible, our materials are essentially fungible, and our work is hammered into whatever progression happens to be working that day, that hour, that minute. Our clay never hardens or bakes to permanence in a kiln; our paint is never quite dry.
In her new anthology titled Because You Asked: A Book of Answers on the Art & Craft of the Writing Life, Katrina Roberts has assembled a remarkable collection of writers’ responses to self-chosen reader queries. The questions span a broad swathe of reader interests, from the standard whys and hows, to the offbeat and quirky (my personal favorite being “Is that your real nose?” – asked of author Brian Doyle by a kindergarten student who then proceeded to add some rather pointed observations of the proboscis in question). There are questions born of personal agenda, practical questions of craft and compensation, and those so bluntly personal they make me squirm and whisper a quiet blessing that I’ve been spared that particular inquiry.
For nearly fifteen years, Roberts has been the curator of the Visiting Writers Reading Series at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and has hosted close to one hundred and fifty writers during that time. She describes the book thusly:
[This] anthology collects the answers to questions asked of writers: anecdotes, admonishments, confessions, craft notes, manifestos — that is, insights and revelations about life and work.
This collection is an opportunity that many of us, writer and reader alike, have been longing for: the chance to continue that underlying dialog that extends beyond what the writer has gifted us on the page. For anyone who has pondered the mystery and mechanics behind the storyteller’s work, Ms. Roberts has given us a magnificent codex for the writers’ oeuvre.
The organization of the contributions is organic, more like the flow of a conversation than sorted by category or genre. Whether the reader chooses to read cover to cover, or by random selection, plucking out bits as they speak to your curiosity, there is wisdom and humor with every turn of the page. I gravitated first to the fiction writers, since that is generally what I choose to write – poetry being a terrifyingly raw and mysterious language that I appreciate but have no understanding of. But that is the beauty of the collection: a reader, or writer-reader, can settle into the familiar, or venture into exotic territory.
I was struck by the equanimity and innate kindness of these writers as they dealt with the most prosaic inquiries, questions they must hear and answer dozens of times, if they are gracious enough to teach or participate in public readings. The insight and wisdom of their answers is as stunning as their work itself, and speaks to their success in an often challenging career choice. That they openly and freely discuss work habits, elements of craft, the mysteries of overcoming a blank page – that they are so present, so willing to be vulnerable about such personal practices – both astonishes and validates me, because writing is an eviscerating process, not at all pretty, romantic, logical, transferable, or even explicable.
I am deeply grateful for Ms. Robert’s work, in both providing access to a broad and talented pool of writers for Whitman College, and coalescing that experience into this eloquent and enlightening collection. My favorites?
Mat Johnson’s response to, “What do you dislike about writing?” which is one of the most poignant and elegant explanations of a writer’s life that I have ever come across:
The time it takes to create something worth anyone but yourself reading it. Every book you see lined up on a shelf is an artifact of a beautiful day that was not enjoyed, a conversation that was never conducted, a moment in the world not experienced.
Sean Hill’s piece, titled, “What Spills Over and What Urges the Spill: Some Whys and Wherefores of Dangerous Goods,” where he details the inception of his postcard poems project:
I wanted to write poems that explored the dramatic situation of the postcard rather than capturing the essence of Postcardese – those short sentences that seem to leap from subject to subject. Sans envelope, a postcard is out in the open the way a poem is.
Sarah Vap’s piece, titled, “Katrina is Holding the Baby While I Adore and Annoy the Students,” an utterly and perfectly vulnerable discussion of the elusive nature of meaning in poetry:
That line, out of context, I probably replied – you’re right, it means nothing. Even in the context of the poem, one could argue, it “means nothing.” But in the context of a book, I tell them, that is where I think and hope it accumulates a “meaning.”
And of course, Brian Doyle’s response to, “Is that your real nose?” and even more so, his answer to a later question asked by a high school student who wanted to know how he retained his dignity in an auditorium full of disinterested teenagers. His reply is a must-read, and a credo for the writer’s life:
I suggest that the sooner you wake up and get it that there actually is a wild grace and defiant courage in people, and there actually are stories that save and change lives, and that there is a lot more going on here than we can ever find words for, and that love and attentiveness and creativity are real and wild and immanent, the cooler and wilder a life you will enjoy while you have such a priceless and in explicable thing as a life…
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Jody Handerson is a working writer and editor living in Boulder, Colorado with an enormous black cat, five bicycles and eighty-two pairs of shoes. She is a contributing editor to The Literary Review.