Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Hollowell: The Plow Mule and the Angel

Many years ago, I told another writer that I was going back to school to get my MFA in Creative Writing, and she replied, “Oh, I would never do that.” When I pressed her a little further, she explained that she felt that going to school to learn to write would destroy her “spark.”


I continue to meet people like her, folks who think that writing is purely inspirational, and well, purely pure. It either springs fully formed from your split skull or you are sullying it with your grubby mortal fingers. No revision (the horrors). No school. And certainly no such thing as setting up a schedule, or a word count goal, or even, for that matter trying to write when you aren’t divinely inspired.

When these fine people hear that I’ve plowed a significant sum of money into a MFA, or that I do in fact have both a writing and submission schedule, and that I read craft books (well, mostly criticism books these days) and other’s writing with an eye towards cribbing some good techniques, well, let’s just say that they sigh and look askance.

For the record, I do think that there is a balance between effort and inspiration. I do think that a writer can deaden his or her work by trying too hard, revising it to meet the needs of a particular market, or setting such narrow confines as to all but fetter the work. There is room for inspiration out there, but if I waited to write until I was struck with it, I would write about three poems a year. Maybe four if someone bought me a bottle of good scotch.

And so it was with great glee that I read an interview on The Rumpus with the author Elizabeth Gilbert who managed to sum up my feelings beautifully.

I’ve come to think of it as the plow mule and the angel. This is how I think of it: there’s a contract between you and the mystery. And the mystery is the thing that brings life to the work. But your part of the contract is that you have to be the plow mule, or the mystery won’t show up. It might not even show up if you do your work. There’s no guarantee. It doesn’t promise you anything, but I can promise you that if you don’t do your work, it won’t show up. That’s the only guarantee. It’s not going to wake you up in the middle of the night to be like, Hey I’ve got this golden gift for you! It doesn’t do it that way. It needs to see that you’re giving the full commitment.

So, are you willing to be the plow mule? Are you willing to put in the time? Malcolm Gladwell postulates that it takes 10,000 hours of focused practice to master a complex skill such as writing, composing music, developing innovative software code, completing micro-surgery…. For most of us, finding 10,000 hours to practice our craft means actually scheduling it. Get up early in the morning, stay up late at night after the kids are in bed, work a part-time job (and just spend a little less,) or shut yourself in your little home office on sunny days. Commit to the practice of writing. Be the mule, keep your appointments at your desk, so that when the angel of inspiration visits, she’ll know where to find you.

Erin Coughlin Hollowell is a poet and writer who lives in Homer, Alaska. Prior to landing there, she lived on both coasts, in big cities and small towns, pursuing many different professions from tapestry weaving to arts administration. She earned her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in 2009. Her poetry has most recently been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Permafrost, Terrain: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environment, and Sugar House Review. Her first collection of poetry Pause, Traveler was published on June 1, 2013 by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. Her blog is 

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