Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from the preface to Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces by David Biespiel. David is an award-winning poet, teacher, and president of the Attic Institute— which provides instruction, editing, workshops, weekend-retreats, and more for both professional and aspiring writers.
If you only read one sentence in this book I hope it’s this one: A lot of the time just sticking with it is what this whole business of writing, making art, playing music, making songs, performing, and living a creative life is all about.
I’ve been a faithful adherent to that idea for over twenty years, and during that time one particular experience still inspires me. When I was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in the 1990s, the social activist and poet Adrienne Rich paid a visit to our workshop. Rich, who had just retired from teaching literature and women’s studies at Stanford, was famous for spending as little time as she could with the creative writing fellows. I always admired her for that. Some of the students were excited that she was coming that Tuesday afternoon to our weekly workshop because they hoped she would look closely at our poems and give advice earned from years in the vineyard. Praise from Adrienne Rich, if it were to be given, would be high praise for sure.
A couple of us, however, weren’t much thrilled with that prospect.
Not because we didn’t admire Rich—we did. Certainly I did. But we’d also grown weary of workshops in general. It doesn’t take long in even a decent writing workshop for a writer to know without any doubt what each person is going to say about a new poem or story. Any workshop can devolve into a set piece: One person speaks about how the writing under review made her feel, another person speaks about this or that detail being earned or un-earned, and still another person compares the writing to something he’s read and if the writing was more like that it’d be great (“some three-eyed monkeys would be good on page three!”). Was it Gertrude Stein who once said, “A workshop is a workshop is a workshop?”
This is not to denigrate all writing workshops, of course. Some are spectacularly inspirational. But it’s important for everyone in a workshop to remain focused on why you’re there. To my mind, you go into writing workshops to broaden your self-understanding of how you work on your writing and on what you value in writing. If an individual story or poem gets improved, that’s a bonus. A good workshop is one that focuses on the making of writing.
That’s what I was hoping for, I think, that early spring afternoon in 1994 when Adrienne Rich returned to Stanford to meet with the Stegner fellows. I just wanted to listen to Adrienne Rich talk. I didn’t much care what she wanted to talk about either. I admired her because I liked that she’d done more as a poet than only write poems. She exemplified a literary life as a private poet whose body of poetry had evolved in interesting ways for forty years and as public poet, a citizen-poet, who spoke forcefully in the arena of civic engagement and political life. I always liked that about Adrienne Rich. I liked that Rich’s great lesson to a writer is this: writing requires solitude but life doesn’t.
Adrienne Rich is petite. She speaks with the accent from her Baltimore childhood. She barely made it up to the edge of the round table that we were gathered around in the Jones Room in Building 50 on the Stanford campus. The Jones Room was a dingy lounge with overstuffed armchairs and couches and the small, crusty seminar table. The walls were cinder-block chic. Hanging on the walls were portraits of members of the Jones family that had donated money to Stanford to support creative writing lectureships and also, I guess, this charmingly seedy room used weekly for workshops by the Stegner Fellows.
Fortunately, Rich didn’t much want to run a standard workshop at all and quickly dispensed with the toil of it. She said she wanted to ask us one question and let our conversation grow from there. There was some uncomfortable shifting around in chairs from some of my fellow students at this unexpected turn. One woman, I remember, forcefully stuffed the copies of her poems into her bag and all but slammed her notebook down in dismay.
“Are you in it for the long haul?” Rich asked, emphasizing the o in “long.”
I sat up in my chair, delighted. What an open-ended question, for one thing, and a pertinent one.
Certainly I’d known it before Adrienne Rich showed up that day, but that moment in the Jones Room at Stanford settled it for me: Workshops are not helpful if they only pick at the cat’s whiskers of the piece of writing on the table. Workshops also need to address large issues in writing—whether it’s “why do you write?” or “what is the importance of the expression ‘once upon a time?’” or “what does it mean to tell the truth in writing?” In that tense moment at Stanford, Adrienne Rich pressed on with more important questions: “Are you present enough in your sense of your self as a writer and in your process of writing to keep at it? Do you expect to evolve and even reject your past accomplishments, even the method that you’ve used to write? Is a life as a writer worth it?” And: “What skills do you need to write throughout your life?”
Now that’s a workshop!
My general answer to Rich’s questions is one I more or less borow from Joseph Campbell’s definition of the hero. In this case the hero is the writer who receives a call out of the ordinary world. Reluctant at first, the writer receives encouragement and crosses the threshold into the fullness of the imagination where the writer encounters tests, assistants, and challenges. At the inmost portions of the cave of the writer’s imagination, the writer endures a variety of ordeals, then seizes on that experience and pursues transformation of the experience by writing.
Finally, the writer returns to the ordinary world with the treasure—a poem, a story, an essay, a novel. Every writer enters this heroic myth at the beginning of every creative endeavor.
That’s my general answer. My specific answer also comes from Campbell’s famous take on the hero—that a hero has a thousand faces because every human being must reenact the hero’s journey. Every writer has a thousand faces, too. Every poem, story, painting, or choreography is an occasion to don those thousand faces through the process of making one version after another of the singular piece of art at hand.
That’s a little vague, I know. There’ll be more on that as I continue.
But for now I want only to say that to be a creative person is one of the ongoing heroic acts of your life. And the journey to becoming a writer is worth every step. One question every writer has is this: How do I stay on the journey consistently?
This book is my take on how you might do just that.
David Biespiel (pronounced buy-speel) is widely recognized as one of the leading poets of his generation, a liberal commentator on national politics, and also one of the nation’s experts in teaching writing. His teaching experience is innovative and vast: He has taught at every level of education, from a one-room schoolhouse to large university campuses, from public high schools to graduate seminars, from teaching poetics at Stanford University to developing national champions in the Olympic sport of diving, and he has lectured and spoken to audiences throughout the United States.
Looking to create an independent writing studio in 1999, David founded the Attic Institute as a haven for writers in Portland’s historic Hawthorne district.
Among his publications are Shattering Air, Pilgrims & Beggars, Wild Civility, The Book of Men and Women which was named Best Poetry of the Year for 2009 by The Poetry Foundation and also received the Oregon Book Award, and Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces. He has been honored with a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature.
Since 2008, he as been a frequent contributor to Politico’s “Arena,” a cross-party, cross-discipline daily conversation about politics and policy among more than a hundred current and former members of Congress, governors, mayors, political strategists and scholars.
In 2010 he was elected to the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle where he serves as a judge for the NBCC annual book awards.