Marla is a big fan of genealogy (she discovered a small connection to Madison in her own ancestry) and just finished her MFA in creative writing at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. When I asked Marla her favorite thing about Madison, she divided her question into a favorite alone thing and a favorite social thing. You can probably guess what both of them are by looking at her blog. Marla’s favorite alone thing is the trails around Madison and I have to say in the 2 months she’s been here, she’s explored more of the trails than I have in the last 10 years. Her favorite social thing is talking to the people who live in Madison, listening to the stories of all the folks who have lived in Madison for years, especially as she’s wandering along the river bank.
It’s always gratifying to find someone else who appreciates your town as you fully believe it deserves to be appreciated, so it’ll be sad to see Marla and her husband go at the end of this week. For me, personally, it was nice to discover a fellow blogger and writer, someone whose dedication to her craft is inspiring. Having just finished her MFA and having attended several writing conferences, Marla is a great source of writerly information and resources.
Having Marla in town and being able to get together for lunch a couple times reminded me that writing can be a lonely thing. If anything is to get written, you must spend some time alone with a piece of paper, typewriter or computer. There’s simply no way around it. Even sitting in the coffee shop surrounded by people, if you’re writing, you’re kind of alone, inhabiting the world of whatever it its you’re writing.
But writing is also a deeply social thing. One of the things that makes talking to Marla and reading her blog so great is that she talks to people, and clearly enjoys it. She meets people and engages them in conversation. I suppose a complete recluse could be a great writer, but it’s hard to imagine exactly what his subject would be, besides the inner workings of his own mind. And surely that would eventually get boring…I certainly get bored pretty quickly with the workings of my own mind.
Writing is social in that it helps to encounter people, to know people well enough to write about their lives. It’s also social in that it’s helpful to talk to other writers. They can be sources of practical information, but also just sharing the general ups and downs of trying to be someone who writes. The difficulty of finding something to blog about every day. The long haul that is writing a longer piece of work. The gems of wisdom passed on by those who have had some of their own success. While in her writing program at Chatham, Marla was lucky enough to hear Ann Patchett talk about writing. Patchett looked around the room full of aspiring writers and told them all to think of the most talented person in their program. They all knew who it was. That person would not be the one who would necessarily get published and “make it.” The person who makes it as a writer is the person who’s willing to work the hardest. That, in the end, is most often the difference between failure and success.
I’ve always said this exact same thing about getting a Ph.D. The people who make it all the way through graduate school and come out with an actual doctorate in their hands are not the smartest people. In many ways, they’re the stupidest, because they’re the people (myself included) who are just not smart enough to move on and do something else. As with many things in life, finishing a dissertation and getting a Ph.D. is about persistence; the ones who finish are simply the ones who don’t give up.
It’s comforting to think that writing works the same way. Marla is one of the hard workers with the extra bonus of talent to boot, so I’m looking forward to seeing the memoir she’s working on sitting on the shelves of Village Lights Bookstore, another of her favorite hang-outs in Madison, soon. In the meantime, I’m glad for Marla to have become an honorary Madisonian and thankful for the things she helped me remember about the writing life.