Essay: Something Naked and Necessary by Robin Greene
Professor Robin Greene comes to deliver a needed reminder to all of us sending our work out to the world: we write not for the sake of outcomes, but for “something naked and necessary.” As you look forward into 2019, cataloguing the successes and failures of this past year, read this essay and pause, reflect, readjust. With Robin, investigate why you write.
I just read through twenty-five poetry manuscripts as part of an annual chapbook contest I’m judging. Though some of the work is amateurish, most is solid. And the weight of the decision to find a winner is upon me.
A writer myself, I know that no matter how small the contest, a win can boost a career, enhance a C.V., land an academic job, or—at very least—lift confidence.
And that’s important, because for every poetry superstar like Mary Oliver, Stanley Kunitz, or Sharon Olds, there’s a thousand or so competent poets who have studied formally, understand contemporary poetic conventions, taken workshops, met with hard, in-your-face criticism, and continued to hone their craft and improve their skills without reward.
Why? I ask myself now. Our contest offers the winner a measly $200 honorarium and twenty-five copies of the published chapbook. Why? I ask again, looking at the pile of chapbooks on my kitchen table. Why write?
Of course, many writers have asked this question—perhaps beginning in the modern era most notably with Virginia Wolfe and her famous “A Room of One’s Own,” and again by George Orwell, in his well-known essay “Why I Write,” and then by Joan Didion, and countless writers. Open any creative writing text book and you’ll find, no doubt, multiple responses to this question.
In my long writing and teaching career—I’ve taught composition and creative writing for almost thirty years while serving as the director of our university writing center for ten—I’ve had some successes (book and journal publications), but no real recognition. And now, in my early sixties, I’m reconsidering—shall I spend what time I have left writing? Or shall I change direction, engage in other pursuits?
My eyes tear up. Not because of my lack of success but because I might not have time—time to write or time to become the best version of myself.
So, I tell myself, here are my options: give up writing or continue writing—regardless of the outcome.
And considering these, I realize that the first—give up writing—isn’t an option. My longtime habit of beginning each day at a computer is a spiritual practice, one in which I inhabit myself in a direct and meaningful way. It’s as if by writing words, I get beyond words, grappling with something primal, akin to magic. My hands type what my brain can’t articulate—something naked and necessary.
A little dramatic, you may say. But if, as Rilke advises—perhaps more dramatically—in Letters to a Young Poet, “This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write [….] And if your answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity[.]”
Most of us who have done as Rilke suggests and have answered with “I must” have chosen the second option—never to give up writing, regardless of the outcome.
But here’s the rub: outcome. How do writers, especially poets, continue to write for years without great success, by which I mean without big-time publishing or big-time monetary compensation? In essence: how do we sustain our art-practice without reward, yet knowing it’s our most meaningful life-work?
Are we insane? Like Vincent Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, or like the poets whose manuscripts I’ve just read?
But if insane, I’ve found another practice that keeps me from complete insanity—one that teaches how not to be focused on outcomes. I found my way to meditation and Buddhist practice about twenty years ago because it helped me to court a mindset of compassionate effort, which allows me to do my best and then let go.
This practice, as many readers are aware, is difficult—sometimes so difficult that it’s near impossible. For meaning is often dependent on the validation of others.
As children, we seek approval. “Watch me!” the child insists, as she turns a summersault. “I got an A,” the young scholar brags to his friend. “Call me doctor…” the new Ph.D. requires of her students. And so on. Recognition is validation, something we seem hardwired to need.
So, if we are hardwired for this recognition, is it realistic or psychologically healthy to live without it? As a Buddhist and a writer, I say yes. Let me explain.
One of Buddhism’s major tenets states that life involves “dukkha” (often translated as suffering or dissatisfaction) caused by wanting things to be different than they are. And the way to lessen our dukkha is through compassionate effort—work hard toward a goal but then let go.
As writers, we can shift away from our focus on publication—which we can’t control—to a focus on the work itself, the effort—which we can control. And there’s freedom in this.
I’m reminded of mandala sand painters and of artist Jeff Goldsworthy, who intentionally creates pieces out of natural materials that dissipate back into the natural world.
Practicing artists and writers usually hone their craft, increasing their competency. And this increase of knowledge and skills offers intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards. If we remember back to Psychology 101, we’ll recall that intrinsic or internal motivation comes from rewards derived from enjoyment of a task, from internal satisfactions.
Extrinsic or external motivation, on the other hand, comes from rewards or satisfactions derived from outside the individual, like receiving remuneration for a job. And most meaningful jobs, psychologists agree, begin with this first motivation.
Of course, we all need money, so I’m not proposing that people construct their lives solely based on intrinsic rewards. But I am proposing that writing—the success of which is more often than not out of our control—is an activity that would be best done from the locus of intrinsic motivation. Because only 2% of all creative writers are able to make their living from writing alone, it would be unrealistic—and psychologically unhealthy—to define success by monetary reward alone.
Most writers I know find their way to academia or to positions that give them meaning or offer them work that complements the work of writing. Most writers who’ve been writing for ten or more years enjoy some success, some extrinsic validation, but it’s not what drives them. And often, this validation is realized locally, not nationally nor globally.
Writers who write over decades usually become known in their city, state, or region. They connect to other writers and build community. They pursue their art passionately but don’t allow their passion to overwhelm their lives. They have friends, spouses, kids, day-jobs, etc.
The key here is balance, compassion, and letting go—finding a way toward pursuing a goal without expecting one.
When I was a graduate student at Binghamton University in upstate New York, I studied with the then famous poet Galway Kinnell, who had just won a MacArthur Genius Award. He was a professor at NYU but taught that year as a visiting professor of poetry at BU. I, along with other graduate students and a couple of professors, filled his advanced poetry class. And at one point, Galway insisted that we all meet at least once, privately in conference with him.
So, we all did. And my conversation with Galway during that meeting impacted my life as a writer. When Galway died a few years ago, I recalled what he told me.
Galway sat in a small, unimpressive cement-block office without windows. There were two chairs—one at a desk, which he occupied, and a metal folding chair, intended for guests, which I occupied. The late afternoon sun didn’t appear. The intense cold of upstate New York winter didn’t intrude. In fact, the office was located near the university’s archaic boiler room, a huge expanse of early twentieth-century coal-fired machinery that looked more like a Rube Goldberg contraption than a functioning system.
Many graduate students who had appointments before mine had asked Galway to edit a poem, and as he did, they read from a stack of New Yorker magazines on his desk. I, however, on my one visit with this famous poet, obviously on top of his game while I was still studying mine, wanted to ask something significant, something I could carry into my future.
“What does fame mean to you?” I’d asked. And Galway, not a Buddhist, gave me a very Buddhist answer: “Fame means very little,” he began. “It’s ephemeral and who knows or cares if it lasts. I do my best, and that’s enough.”
When Galway died, I heard the news on NPR, in the morning as I dressed to go to campus. I sat down on my bed and listened to a commentator speak about Galway’s life—for about ten seconds of airtime. Then a newscaster discussed a crisis in Afghanistan.
Later, I read some brief articles online about Galway’s life and work, and then heard and read nothing. However famous Galway had been during the semester I’d worked with him, his fame had little staying power.
Which is what Galway had predicted. And had made peace with.
I think I’ve found the winner of our chapbook contest. I don’t know who the writer is because submissions are blind, but the poems are emotionally present and well-crafted. The poet has attended to them; they communicate something authentic and, I believe, worthwhile.
When I contact the poet, he or she will learn about his or her extrinsic rewards—twenty copies of a published book and the $200 honorarium.
Enough—you might ask? But, this question has no objective answer.
Writers have two choices—to write or not to write. For those who choose the first option, writing continues to offer something naked and necessary, something they can pursue mostly for its intrinsic rewards. For those who chose the second, writing just doesn’t offer enough.
Robin Greene is Professor of English and Writing and Director of the Writing Center at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC, past recipient of a North Carolina-National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Writing, and has published over ninety pieces of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in literary journals. She’s the author of four books, and her new novel, The Shelf Life of Fire, is due out this spring. Additionally, Robin is a registered yoga teacher (RYT200), cofounder and editor of Longleaf Press, and cofounder of Sandhills Dharma Group, a Buddhist meditation group. She holds a M.A. in English from Binghamton University and a M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Art at Norwich University.