@ Dinty W. Moore

A few years ago a story attributed to John Gardner found its way into the pages of the Writer’s Chronicle. It seems that a writer in New York City received a letter awarding him a free vacation in the Caribbean. All he had to do was show up at the pier to catch the ship south, which he did. At the pier he found many other writers, all with the same award letter, and he also found that the ship was a galley, complete with chains and overseers with whips. The writers were chained to their benches and made to row all the way to whichever Caribbean island. After their vacation, they were again chained to their benches and made to row all the way back to New York. When they docked, one of the writers asked, “Do we tip the whippers?”

“We did last year,” another writer replied.

I think the story is intended to underline a grim reality for the many, many writers who work and agonize and slave for little or no reward. Surely we must be masochists! But as I’ve remembered the story, told it to students (who always laugh uneasily), and found it returning to my thoughts, I wonder whether it doesn’t contain a deeper, although perhaps unintentional, significance.

Perhaps the whippers are not evidence of masochism in writers, but of that unrelenting impulse from a place that Madison Smartt Bell, in Narrative Design: A Writer’s Guide to Structure, compared with undergoing hypnosis: “ . . . my left brain consciousness (which had not been put to sleep) was able to watch everything that happened, with wonder and a pleasurable level of fright, as through the porthole of a diving bell . . . that sense of bifurcation, slow division of the consciousness, was really quite familiar. . . Yes, I had been there before. Often. At my desk, for three or four hours every day.”

“I can’t not write,” a writer will say.

Or, “Writing is like breathing. I have to do it.”

The catch is that for most of us there remains the struggle between intending to write and actually writing. We count the demands on our time like beads on a rosary, we become adept at evasions. And those of us who teach in graduate creative writing programs have all watched talented students go away with their diplomas, never to be heard from again. What to do but respect the power of our inner whippers to drive us to our desks where, with Madison Smartt Bell’s pleasurable level of fright, we can sink into his slow division of consciousness.

There is, of course, a difference between serious demands on our time and procrastination. When my then four-year-old granddaughter burst sobbing into my study, bringing me up from my bifurcation so fast I nearly got the bends, with the news that she had put a bead up her nose and couldn’t get it back out (and this at the precise time that her mother was in our local hospital undergoing a Caesarian section), did I keep typing?

I advise students not to beat up on themselves for not writing enough. Sometimes, when getting the words to the page is slow and painful, allow yourself some space. Sometimes writing a hundred words a day is enough. Anyone can write a hundred words. Sometimes a hundred words are all I can write. But often those hundred words will lead to more.

I tell students to subscribe to at least one literary journal and read it regularly, and also to buy books and read them. Musicians will say that if you can’t be practicing, listen to music. I say, if you can’t be writing, read.

Never show your unpublished work to anyone whose judgment you don’t respect. And never, never, never badmouth your own work. There are already too many people in the world who are ready to badmouth other people’s work.

All writers need solitude, but isolation can be deadly for a writer. It’s important to understand the difference. So hang out with other writers. Form a writing group. Enjoy being a writer! What could be better?

Drink Wild Turkey.

And don’t forget to tip the whippers!

Mary Clearman Blew’s most recent book is This Is Not the Ivy League: A Memoir. Her fiction collection, Runaway, won a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, as did her memoir All But the Waltz: Essays on a Montana Family. Her novel, Jackalope Dreams, won the 2008 Western Heritage Award. She teaches creative writing at the University of Idaho and Pacific Lutheran University.