Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Guest Blogger Christin Geall on Writing in Heaven and That Other Place

In a new situation, surrounded by people I've never met, within a short time I'm usually able to point out those with whom I am likely to strike up a friendship. Then there are those unpredictable friendships that take me by surprise. That's the way it was when I was befriended by Christin Geall during my first MFA residency three years ago. On the surface, Christin was – is – so many things I am not: in her 30s, gorgeous, intelligent and highly educated in several languages and varied disciplines, comfortable writing about sex, diplomatic, relaxed at parties, spontaneous, and succinctly forthright (here's what I mean – when I asked for a bio, she sent this: Christin Geall writes nonfiction from her home in Victoria, British Columbia. A Stonecoast MFA grad, she has an agent, a lover, a son and a dog, but she still isn't sure if she's lived the ending to her first book.).

One thing (among many) which I admire about Christin is how she is able to claim the badge of writer, regardless of what her publishing status may be at any given point in time. She's been a newspaper columnist and magazine feature writer, but more recently has been less published, yet also more sure of being a writer. Me, I seem to keep needing that affirmation of frequent publication, yet I keep hoping that my friend's belief in her right to call herself a writer--with or without frequent publication--will rub off on me.

Please welcome Christin Geall.

A writer dies. She goes to heaven. At the pearly gates she meets St. Peter who asks, “Would you like to stay here for eternity or would you like to take a look at hell first?” The woman, thinking what writer never wanted a glimpse of hell, replies, “Sure. I’ll take a peek. Thanks.” In hell, the woman sees a forest of tall fir trees, densely packed, their bases burning, the air gray with smoke. “You may want to look up,” St. Peter suggests. Atop every tree the woman sees a person typing on a laptop. Chains glint in the light. “What are they doing there?” She asks. “They’re writing.”
“I think I’d like to see heaven.” St. Peter takes her up through the clouds, opens the pearly gates and they again enter a burning forest of tall fir trees. On top of every tree sits a writer, chained to a laptop. The woman turns to St. Peter. “I don’t understand. There’s no difference.”
“Well,” he says, “the only difference is that in heaven you’re published.”

Janet Burroway told this joke in a chandeliered ballroom in Chicago last week at the annual conference of The Association of Writers and Writing Programs. In the room sat a couple hundred people, mainly women, curious about the lives of those in ‘heaven’ - the women with multiple books, essays, professorships, prizes and invitations. These ‘women of a certain age,’ as the panel described them, also included Hilda Raz, Alicia Ostriker, Linda Pastan and Rosellen Brown.

I must reveal at this point that I am not a journalist by trade so my notes are sketchy. I tend to draw in my margins. Nevertheless, between the scrolls, I captured a few pithy one-liners about the writing life, (attributed where possible):

· The two most difficult things to write about: 1. Your mother 2. Yourself.
· Beware the twin imposters: success and failure.
· Do a writing program, but remember -- you have to figure out how to make writing a continuing part of your life after you are done.
· Ego will always demand more – money, prizes, prestige. So just focus on the work.
· Invent a discipline. Sit down for a few hours every day, no matter what. Eventually you’ll get so bored, you’ll write something.
· ‘If it’s any good, it will sell’ is a capitalist mantra and frankly, not true.
· Work is its own cure. You have to like it more than being loved. – Marge Piercy
· We get the children we deserve.
· Kill your censor and write what you are afraid to write.
· Share your work in a community.
· It’s fear rather than time that prevents us.
· Keep a low overhead. – Grace Paley

I’m neither young nor aged, but I’ll take hindsight over foresight any day. Writerly wisdom is too rare and I’m not in heaven yet. Sure, I’ve been published here and there, but I do not have one book. Not one. I sense this puts me in writer’s purgatory, between heaven and hell, where I am destined to smolder atop a tree of anxiety and ambition until my agent says, “You’re done.” This could take years; I once read it takes five years, on average, to get that first book out. And then? The pearly gates open to a new forest of writers, typing atop their proverbial trees.

No wonder you gotta love the work.

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