The chief difference between writers and other people, says Lia Purpura, is that "writers write things down." The poet and essayist visited campus last Friday for a public reading and a Q&A with my creative nonfiction students, and today another writer shared her dynamic story with my class--Joy Frank-Collins, an alumna who parlayed her English major and some journalism experience into a career in public relations with a sideline in writing about baseball. As a writer, I could not resist writing some things down during those visits:
When Lia Purpura reads her work, the whole room leans forward, listening. Her essays sound like poetry and her poems carry massive backpacks full of meaning; she admits that the genres seem to be merging and wonders aloud whether "the tributaries will meet at some point in the future."
Her poems are tributaries with tactile impact; she urges my students to pay attention to anything that makes them sit up and feel on fire, or that scratches an itch or tickles some obscure fancy. Later she talks about the time it takes for a piece of writing to "cure," as if it were a side of bacon or Virginia ham, and she urges them to learn to "build in enough time to let the thing sit and simmer."
To overcome writer's block, she says, go for a walk--without a phone or iPad or earbuds or other devices. (I can't count the number of times I've urged students to do this, but somehow it means more coming from a "real" writer.) Take a note pad and pen, though, and write stuff down, says Purpura, because like any other craftsman, writers "have to pick stuff up to make things with."
I feel the rhythm of a southern waltz when she reads "Crape Myrtle": "in the morning / between us was nothing / but moments, magenta, / majestic." Now I want to plant a crape myrtle and watch it waltz in the breeze.
As we age, she says, we must find "strategies of remaining curious and remaining young" along with the willingness to take risks, to walk into situations or subjects in which know nothing but persist and make something of it. "The quest is to ask better questions," insists Purpura, "and the essay is the place where you can do that."
Like Lia Purpura, my former student Joy has mastered the art of marching into unfamiliar territory and asking great questions. She says her first job as an entry-level news reporter taught her three essential skills that have served her well throughout her career: writing concisely, writing quickly to meet deadlines, and learning how to learn enough about any topic to be able to explain it clearly to others. When she moved to public relations, the key to success lay in "having good ideas, being bold enough to bring them up to people, and hustling to get ideas noticed."
When students ask why she'd returned to college to complete her degree even though she had constructed a successful career without it, she takes us back to the time when she came to understand that her job wasn't exercising all of her creativity: "I realize that I need to revisit the writer in me--I need to feed my writer."
Which, I guess, is why we're here: bringing in "real" writers, urging students to listen and ask questions, giving them time to let ideas cure or simmer or tickle or hustle. We feed the writer, and then we wait to watch it grow.