Twenty-four hours into a month-long fast from Twitter and Facebook, I’m already reading and writing more intentionally and coherently. (This interesting essay by the software developer Adam Brault gave me the final nudge toward this move. It’s worth putting in your Instapaper queue.)
Last night I attended the fall convocation at the honors college at ASU, and for once arrived with a few minutes to spare, which let me park a mile away and enjoy an evening walk. Freed from the tyranny of pull-to-refresh, I left my phone in my pocket all the way there. Small victories. On the way back, I looked at my Instapaper queue and started reading an essay I’d flagged back in July, “A Desert Beyond Fear,” by Jana Richman.
Such is the nature of the desert. If you persist in your gravity, the desert will take full advantage — it will have you falling over yourself as you trudge along carrying your blame and angst and fear; it will mock you until you literally and figuratively lighten up and conform to the place. The place will never conform to you. We knew that; that’s why we went. That’s why we always go to the desert when we’re stuck in a cycle of self-induced wretchedness.
The kinds of fears that daily infiltrate my mind are mostly petty, and even those that are legitimate fade to nothing during a week like this, when I carry the hot memory of Friday’s massacre in Connecticut. (Side note for all the state legislators and congressmen reading this post: I’m disgusted and enraged at the notion that you will legislate restrictions on the purchase of ammonium nitrate fertilizer–as you should–but declare that this is beyond your purview.)
But whether your fears are small or great, imagined or cruelly reasonable, there’s succor in Richman’s essay. There are obvious, pleasing echoes in her writing of Terry Tempest Williams and Annie Dillard, but less bravado. I think that’s good. Her prose is beautiful and simple. And we would all do well to read more Bertrand Russell, as her husband counsels. And how well she speaks for the western high desert. Get thee to Escalante.
Since this is a site ostensibly about the reading and writing life, one more thing about fear, or more generally, anxiety:
Writing school was good for me. I think the complaints about MFA programs are almost universally ridiculous, especially when they come from book critics who are really part of the same ecosystem. But I think the typical structure of MFA programs and the advising that happens therein probably does more to promote anxiety than relieve it, and that’s bad for writing.
A few weeks ago, I read about the death of Mark Harris, the first writing professor I worked with as an undergraduate. He was a product of a different time, and as much as I enjoyed his baseball novels–which I suspect would hold up well on a second read–I wasn’t overwhelmed by his nuggets of instructional wisdom. Essentially, they were these three:
- Don’t spend too much time reading the newspaper; the day-to-day events of significance are fewer than you think. Read a lot of books.
- Write every day. An hour might be enough.
- [The primary comment on any submitted work] Not bad. Keep going.
Now that I’m out of school a few (eight!) years, I’m beginning to see the early arcs of my MFA classmates’ careers, and the takeaway is obvious. Mark Harris was smarter than I thought. While there’s something to be said for the skill and ear you bring to the desk, it’s nothing compared to commitment and endurance. And there’s nothing that saps endurance like anxiety. If you aren’t afraid to write bad sentences, eventually you write good books.
Which brings me to the real point of these near-700 words: commending a good writer–and good friend–who’s a terrific example of what can happen when you just won’t let those little anxieties knock you off stride. Since he was a teenager he’s been working on his writing, page after page, manuscript after manuscript, year after year. Last week, Random House called, and the news was good.
Congratulations, Austin Aslan. So well-deserved.