Lately I have been working on my First Book Finish program, adding some things and making improvements to make it ready for a new group of students in September. To do that, I’ve been reviewing what my previous students have said about the program, and also about their own writing.
The last group of students went through the program before COVID19, so that particular piece of nasty in 2020 wasn’t even an issue at the time. But some other things were…
- Climate change
- Human rights violations
- Continued poverty and injustice
- The erosion of democratic values in many places (not just the US, but yes the US)
- Personal family drama, and even tragedy
And now we get to add a global pandemic to the mix. YAY!
Yes, the world feels heavy at times and the truth is, there’s always a LOT going on. Turn on the news on any given day and you will likely feel bombarded with the kind of “news” updates that erode your soul. (The emotional equivalent of acupuncture, but with kitchen knives.)
This is why some of my students have asked me outright if their writing, and their desire to finish and publish their books, even really matters right now.
Does it? What do you think?
Do you ever find yourself asking the same question? I do.
Although I’ve made a point of ensuring that I am able to create and sustain a writing life I love, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. (Not easy, just necessary.)
But some days I do wonder if my writing matters. And when that happens to me, I always find myself turning back to the writers and the books who matter most for me. Here’s a small list of some of the writers whose work has been soul sustenance for me recently:
George Saunders, the American short story writer
Don McKay, the Canadian poet
Jesmyn Ward, the American novelist
Morgan Parker, American poet
Sue Goyette, the Canadian poet
Souvankham Thommavongsa, the Canadian poet and short story writer
Celeste Ng, the American novelist
Hillary Mantel, the British novelist
Esi Edugyan, the Canadian novelist
This list is the tiniest random slice of a very loooong list of writers I love. Many of whom have new books coming out this fall: YAHOO! (I’m preparing to be book-broke until at least January.)
Here’s the thing: if their creative work matters to me, mine must matter as well.
Oh, don’t get me wrong — I think all of these writers are far more talented than I am. And so what?
Talent is so beyond the point. The world can’t even agree what talent is. Every writer on my list of GREATS has folks who hate their work. We live in a world where people give 1-star Amazon reviews to Shakespeare.
It simply does not matter.
What matters is that we tell our stories and write our poems, that we finish our books and get them out into the world so that readers can find them.
“If history has taught us anything, the world is an extremely unreliable critic”. — Ethan Hawke
Does my writing even matter right now?
Why even bother? How do we know that our books — the very books we’re working on right now — can even really matter right now, in the face of everything going on in the world?
This week one of my favourite poets from the list above, Sue Goyette, shared a Ted Talk by the actor Ethan Hawke on her Facebook page.
Hawke has a lot to say about the power and value of human creativity. I won’t quote him extensively because I want you to go watch the video, and then watch it again whenever you find yourself asking if your own work matters.
But here’s the part that spoke to me, and speaks to my students concerns about whether it matters that they finish their books at all given the state of the world:
“It's a thing that worries me sometimes whenever you talk about creativity, because it can have this kind of feel that it's just nice, you know, or it's warm or it's something pleasant. It's not. It's vital. It's the way we heal each other. In singing our song, in telling our story, in inviting you to say, “Hey, listen to me, and I'll listen to you,” we're starting a dialogue. And when you do that, this healing happens, and we come out of our corners, and we start to witness each other's common humanity. We start to assert it. And when we do that, really good things happen.” — Ethan Hawke
This is why I write, despite never knowing if the poem, or story, or book is any good, or if it will be published, or whether critics will like it, or if it will reach the number of readers I want it to reach.
Human creativity is vital. It’s how we heal each other. It’s how we understand the world and our place in it. It’s how we bear witness to our individual and collective tragedies and our joys. It’s how we experience beauty and truth, and it’s how we truly know one another and ourselves.
The world needs all of this now, desperately.
I’m not saying that your novel is going to resolve racial injustice, or that your memoir will solve climate change, or that your book of poems will feed the hungry. But we all need greater understanding of one another’s reality, and we all need to feel just a little bit less alone.
So I would like to invite you to turn this “does it even matter” thought on its head: not only does completing your creative work and getting it out into the world matter, it matters now more than ever.
If you don’t believe me, take it from Ethan Hawke.
If you’d like to FINALLY finish your book in 2020, my First Book Finish program will open for registration again in early September. You can get on the Waiting List here to be the first to hear and get exclusive early bird pricing.