Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Writing, Reading, and Community: The Building Blocks of Being a Writer

By Dan Gutstein, who leads "The New Language of Poetry" workshop that starts February 10th

A former student of mine wrote me a long lost hello recently on Facebook, in part reflecting upon a bit of advice I’d given the young writers in the class, when it came to the serious pursuit of writing following graduation. The student, a lovely young woman in the possession of considerable talent, graduated from college about ten years ago, and had set out to find a job, or  series of jobs, in accordance with my advice—part of a “holy trinity” to which all serious writers must gravitate at some point in their literary careers. That is, every writer must write at regular intervals, read hungrily, and be a regular participant in an artistic community. Pursuing the proper sort of job can be an essential component in this system, and in a strange way, there may be more opportunities for this sort of employment now that our economy has failed to rebound as vigorously as some had predicted.

To write in regular blocks of time, each week, writers must engage the sort of employment that would permit, for instance, three or four mornings in a row of thoughtful, uninterrupted work. In fact, I ask participants in my college and community courses to consider the very time of day during which they will be most productive and then discover work opportunities that would permit freedom during those stretches. Restaurant work, for example, can provide a couple hundred dollars per night, and can leave the writer ample time, mornings and afternoons, several days per week.  I’m reasoning—without any scientific support—that our economy has more short-term, non-benefit positions to offer, at the moment, rather than long-term posts rich in salary, benefits, and climbing-the-ladder time demands. The more thrifty the setup—rent, bar tabs, et cetera—the less one has to work, to earn the money to pay the bills.

 The reading part of the equation should go without saying, except that a young writer should be immersing herself in classics both old and new, and sometimes to discover those texts, it’s important to participate in the exchange of ideas typically found in a community of writers. The Writer’s Center, for example, offers many avenues for community—it hosts workshops, readings, and other events, connecting participants with instructors and other participants, oftentimes spinning off private groups that continue to read and write beyond the course’s conclusion. Perhaps just such a group will spin-off from my next TWC workshop, “The New Language of Poetry”, but either way, participants should know that D.C. features a rich crop of alternative, ground-breaking poets, many of which can be found, regularly, at events listed on the www.dcpoetry.com Web site. “All the crazy jobs we’ve ever held” is a regular topic of conversation, and my former student could chime in, as she continues to fight the battle between time, jobs, and the very necessary work of producing topnotch new writing. 

Dan Gutstein’s writing has appeared or will appear in more than 65 publications, including Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The American Scholar, TriQuarterly, The Iowa Review, and Best American Poetry. A first collection, Non/Fiction, appeared in 2010. He has received grants from several organizations, including the Maryland State Arts Council. He currently works at Maryland Institute College of Art and The George Washington University, and has previously held positions in economics, editing, theatre, and journalism. He has taught tae kwon do and done farm work, as well.

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