Treasure: A Summer Institute Reflection
Summary: Melanie J. Taormina reflects on how the positive feedback she received at a summer institute helped her rediscover a love of writing.
After two years of graduate writing workshops that culminated in a Master of Fine Art degree (MFA) in fiction, I stopped writing. I did not consciously decide to stop, but without deadlines and a group of other writers with whom to share my work, my drive plummeted. But why should this have been? I've been "a writer" since age six, when I began composing poems in my head and writing them down, hunched in my bedroom over loose-leaf pages collected and ordered in a pink Strawberry Shortcake binder. The Christmas I was eight, I found under the tree a small, black, gold-edged, one-year diary, a gift—truly a magnificent gift—from my older sister. On January 1, 1980, I set to recording my days and continued in diary after diary and, when the word "diary" became too juvenile, journal after journal, for over a decade. When the time for college came, I knew, despite questionable career prospects, that I wanted to study writing. And when I finished college, I knew I wanted to continue that study of writing. When my graduate school of choice said no the first time I applied, I worked for a year and tried again. I was motivated intrinsically and encouraged by the support and praise of respected teachers and peers.
When my study reached its culmination with the MFA—when I should have launched myself into the world as a "real" writer, and into my writing with passion, energy, and my accumulated tools and understanding of the craft—why did I stop writing? Yes, my external motivators had been removed, but they weren't the reason I wrote in the first place. Where had my internal motivation gone, that drive and desire that wouldn't allow me, over all those growing years, not to write?
Then came the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project Summer Institute. It has not only helped me see the answer to this question, but, indeed, the question itself. In writing now, I have come for the first time to the why I never saw hiding behind my explanation of my failure to write; I have come for the first time to the question of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Something in my graduate school experience squelched my motivation—my motivation. Reading Tom Romano and working with my writing group has helped me to see what happened.
First, I had begun to write with only the aim of achieving the "publishable" in mind. If I could not produce work of publishable quality (as judged by whom?), then why write? Yes, I knew better. But I had forgotten. I had become, in part, the "A-grade junkie" that Linda Miller Cleary describes in her article "The Fragile Inclination to Write." I had forgotten what Romano speaks to so eloquently in Writing with Passion, something I had known from the age of six: that publication and external validation are "not the reason(s) to write" (197), that "our lives are enriched by the doing" (198). In forgetting this, I strayed from writing with passion. I came at my writing from the arresting stance of the world instead of from the contraction and expansion of my own heart.
Hand in hand with this goes the prevailing environment of my graduate workshops and my reaction to that environment. It's unfortunate, but when I read during the summer institute of Romano's "one-upmanship feedback" (175), the bright and terrible light of recognition switched on. Even before reading this line, I wrote the following in my journal in response to the overall environment of our institute and the atmosphere of my writing group:
This is so different from graduate writing workshops! There, I was on trial, defensive, deconstructed. Here, I am supported, nurtured, encouraged. There, I felt torn down, sometimes doubted my ability to produce anything of worth in my lifetime. Here, I feel built up, usually capable of producing something of worth every day. But isn't the aim of the tough stuff to make you better? Not when it pushes you into a corner so confining you can't write. Don't all the positives weaken, water down, lower your standards? No, they free, allow me to speak in my own voice, validate. It's the faith and bravery that Romano speaks of—this environment builds that up.
In my institute writing group, we built, strength upon strength. Again, a journal excerpt:
The comments that have been made on my work have been very validating and supportive and helpful. I feel we're in a good place of "gentle suggestion"—constructively criticizing with questions. We have a deep, it seems to me, comfort level with one another that is so welcome and fulfilling. I appreciate their encouragement, their attention, and their ideas.
When I receive a suggestion from my writing group in response to my work, I know it is made in a spirit of honest critique, born out of the best intentions, out of, indeed, resonance. This makes a wealth of difference. I feel full again with words to write, with desire and excitement and faith.
Romano, Tom. 1995. Writing with Passion: Life Stories, Multiple Genres. Westport, CT: Boynton/Cook.
Cleary, Linda Miller. 1990. "The Fragile Inclination to Write." English Journal. February: 22-28.