by Adrienne G. Perry
In 2017, Annie Proulx gave a talk on writing to the University of Houston’s Honors College. Members of the UH community, local writers, and fans made up one part of the audience. The other portion was a local high school’s English and creative writing classes. The high schoolers sat toward the back of the room. Deference? Coolness? Under the direction of their teachers? Whatever the case, Proulx addressed a number of her remarks to these young writers directly, a gesture that came across as generous and, like Proulx, utterly lacking in pretension. What would this down-to-earth, suffer-no-fools writer say during the next hour?
Rather than give a craft lecture, Proulx spoke about writing more generally, offering some of the wisdom gathered during her decades of penning novels, short stories, and journalism. Handing it down with a “take what you like and leave the rest” attitude, Proulx said a lot, of course, but here is what I heard.
Writing is physical; that’s part of its pleasure: Find a nice pen—a pen that feels good in your hand and writes well. Move it across paper that also feels good to write on. The pen and paper don’t have to be fancy, but they should bring the writer satisfaction. Seeing words appear in your hand across the page, even if trashed later, is a basic unit of the writer’s joy. Move. Walking remedies several writerly ailments—from suffering writer’s block to throwing ourselves at a story’s problem without finding its solutions. Go for a stroll. Think things over, or not. But something might come up as you gaze at live oaks or kick rocks down the sidewalk.
Make art: Each day, work to create at least one sentence so beautiful it’s like sculpture.
Writing takes time (like, a lot): When working on “Brokeback Mountain,” Proulx wrote for consecutive long stretches (more than eight hours at a go, I’m recalling) for a number of weeks. Not everyone can throw themselves at a story in the same way, but hearing how much time writing Proulx took was both humbling and heartening.
The eager looks on the students’ faces, their jotting down of notes, indicated they were, just like me, learning from Proulx what they needed to. I know this is true for me because I regularly return to that talk. Yesterday, I received a rejection for a short story. My first thought was self-defeating. (No surprise.) My second, chosen thought was, “The story probably needs more time.” This morning, an idea for an essay popped into my head during my walk. A sentence so fine it’s like sculpture? I haven’t written one of those today. But, dear Annie, I have pen and paper, and the day is not yet through.
Adrienne G. Perry grew up in Wyoming, earned her M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College in 2013, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. From 2014–2016 she served as Editor of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. Adrienne’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Black Warrior Review, Indiana Review, and Ninth Letter.