How does Lust show itself in the writing life? What about Wrath?

In the fall of 2012, while I was Hunger Mountain’s The Writing Life co-editor (with the fabulous Cynthia Newberry Martin) two fellow alums of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, Cheryl Wilder and Suzanne Farrell Smith, sent me a pitch for an eight-part essay series.

They wanted to write about the challenges of the writing life within the framework of the classic Seven Deadly Sins. As part of their pitch, they gave me two essay drafts—their introductory piece and their treatment of one of the sins, I can’t remember which.

From the material they provided, I could see that their thoughts on the writing life happened to be right in line with my own, sparking my personal as well as professional interest. And I was so impressed with their thorough proposal.

I said yes to the project.

Because they were still very much in project-development mode, it was understood when I accepted the pitch that I would be working closely with Cheryl and Suzanne as they drafted and revised the essays. Suzanne had worked with me on an essay I’d published on Hunger Mountain’s blog, so she knew I was a hands-on editor who would put our mutual satisfaction with the finished work above all else, and I’m sure she shared her impressions with Cheryl. We all went into the project knowing it was going to be a lot of labor.

I don’t think any of us imagined what that process would be like nor predicted anything like what unfolded, for the work or our own writing lives.

Our work on the Seven Sins re-shaped us as writers.

Through many weeks of intensive work, conducted via e-mail with every communication copied to all three of us, these essays were birthed and then brought to publication in a fall roll-out that made us giddy. And determined. Because the work never stopped.

Something I have to re-learn over and over: We don’t write because we want to convey something we understand. We write so that we may come to understand. We learn what we think, feel, know about any given subject through the writing.

The intense collaborative process that produced those essays taught all three of us how we wanted to approach our writing lives. And it’s still teaching us. We all continue to apply the revelations of that work to our daily writing practice, process, and business.

I hope you’ll find something relevant to your own writing life in that work. Links to the entire series below.

Presenting: The 7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life

Introduction

Sin. Such a little word.

But what does the word tell us? According to John Fredrick Nims and David Mason in Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, the sounds of “sin” are meaningful. Our lips are drawn together as the hiss of sescapes the lungs, struggling between teeth and tongue through friction. Ssss—the serpent’s sound. From this beastly fricative, a slight jaw drop allows the little i, a middle frequency (tenor) vowel that Plato considered “especially apt for movement.” This i slithers the serpent’s s through the mouth to end with a nasally n that is more irritating than its siblings m and ng, with its higher tone and whiny sound.

Sin: Movement that irritates and interferes; a whiny beast in constant struggle.  Read More

Cheryl Wilder with Suzanne Farrell Smith

Envy

At a recent gathering of writers intending to read new work to each other, a friend (I’ll call him “Mark”) told me he had some positive writing news to share. Good will rose in me. But then he said he didn’t want to share it with everyone, just with me, that it was still very new, and he’d tell me after the readings were finished. So it was really positive news. My brain spent the evening devoting ten percent of its energy listening to the readings, and ninety percent hamster-wheeling into a quiet state of despair.

You see, Mark, a fiction writer, has been writing a narrative nonfiction book. Last summer he asked me, a narrative nonfiction writer, to look at his draft, and I devoted several hours of my first-ever Caribbean vacation to reading and responding. The draft was fresh and rough and showed a lot of promise. I believed my feedback would help him reshape the work into something meaningful. As his friend, and also as a devotee and perpetual student of nonfiction, I genuinely wanted him to thrive in the genre.

But that night while Mark hush-hushed about his potential success, I guessed it was about his nonfiction project and I grew nervous, then glum. I think I even glowered. Why? I’d been shopping my own nonfiction book around for a year with no luck. What if Mark had found an agent or a publisher? What if that sun-kissed rough draft in my cocktail-wet hands were to become a shiny award-winning first book? What if he went on to get a subsequent book deal and was now destined to become a hot new narrative nonfiction writer?

What if people paid him to write about the very topics I wanted to write about?  Read More

Suzanne Farrell Smith with Cheryl Wilder

Sloth

Sloth, real Sloth, is easy to recognize.

Greasy hair, potato chip crumbles down the shirt, dirty dishes stacked at the sink and on the coffee table. The sun rises and sets while one lies on the couch with eyes transfixed on a TV screen. A writer can be Slothful exactly like this, but Sloth in the writing life is a kaleidoscope of images: I click through random articles on the Internet, rationalizing that I need to know the most current events; I run more errands than I need to in a vain attempt to “get ahead”; or I cook a new recipe that takes hours to prepare because I feel as though my family needs this from me. My most destructive Sloth is convincing myself I can let the afternoon or evening go by without writing because tomorrow I will be more productive. Then the morning comes and I’ve slept in, so I promise to write that night—a promise I easily break.

When we asked what Sloth looks like in the lives of our surveyed writers, we heard a lot about the vortex of social media. “I worry about how many times I stop in the middle of writing to play Words with Friends™ or Draw Something™, or to make the rounds of Twitter, Facebook, email, etc.” Risa Nye admits. “It certainly doesn’t help me work with greater focus, and I find it really exhausting.” Jason Mott confesses: “Facebook is a terrible time sink. Probably the worst. Five minutes can turn into an hour on there so fast your head will spin. I’m very guilty of falling victim to Facebook’s charms.”

As I researched Sloth for this essay, the soft, arboreal leaf-eater asleep in the trees morphed into a snarling, snorting beast pacing in front of my desk, ready to charge. I always recognized Sloth as “sluggishness, laziness, and physical or mental inactivity”—behavior I do not want to give in to, but at the same time not the worst sin I could commit. There are days so full of activity in my house and in my family’s lives, it feels as though the sluggishness toward writing is justified. Earned, even.  Read More

Cheryl Wilder with Suzanne Farrell Smith

Lust

There are days when I so badly want to write, that I think I could put my infant son in his crib, close the nursery door, and let him wile away the day so I could surrender to my urge. I don’t. Of course I don’t. But sometimes I think I could.

In January 2006, in a downtown Manhattan jury holding room, while braiding and re-braiding my hair and waiting for my name to be called, I was startled by a fervid need to write. At the time, I was teaching second grade at a school for boys. My baseball-obsessed class of eight-year-olds had recently revealed they were surprised that girls like baseball too. An hour into my first morning of jury duty, backpack loaded with my intended time-passers (magazines, crosswords, mail), I claimed a cubicle desk and gave in to my urge to write a chapter book about a girl named Zoo who loves baseball. It was simple: I had to write this book for my class. My fingers danced and my name was never called. In twenty-one hours over three days, the entire time I sat in the holding room, I wrote a complete draft.

After that, I snuck writing in at school, envisioning a series for Zoo and her friends. I jotted essay ideas on apple-shaped notepaper and my mind drifted at lunchtime from the “Muenster bagels” on the table to the book I would write about childhood obesity. A colleague and I wrote a tongue-in-cheek dramatization of the First Continental Congress for our students to perform. During a parent conference, I got the idea to write a series that combined math and geography, and lost the conversation thread while fantasizing about “polar perimeter” and “Serengeti symmetry.”

I was living two lives: one, the professional educator; and the other, the artist, starving inside because I’d developed a longing and couldn’t fulfill it.  Read More

Suzanne Farrell Smith with Cheryl Wilder

Gluttony

While studying poetry as an undergraduate in UNC Wilmington’s Creative Writing program, I became obsessed with line breaks. For me, the magic of poetry resided in a well-rendered line break. I marveled at how the decision to move a word from one line to the next created suspense and anticipation in the poem. And if I tried hard enough, I could create double meaning by choosing which words stood together on each line—a story within a story. I was in love. This poetic tool influenced every decision I made during revision.

For two years, nothing mattered more than the line and the line break that made it possible.

The problem? My obsession drove me to revise even a “finished” poem. I wanted the line breaks to be more poignant and the images to be richer with double meaning. I sat for hours making a single line break decision, only to change it back, or change it in a different way. When I finally stopped, the poem sat chopped-up on the page, barely breathing.

Perfectionism had overpowered both me and my poem. I was a revision-Glutton.  Read More

Cheryl Wilder with Suzanne Farrell Smith

Greed

Maybe it’s the election, but “Greed” comes easy to the tongue.

Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren spoke at the Democratic National Convention about decades-old “corrosive Greed” reincarnated today in billionaires with Cayman Islands tax shelters, a not-so-subtle dig at Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Romney accused the striking Chicago teachers of letting Greed trump their devotion to students, and discounts half of all Americans as parasites, or—as his running mate Paul Ryan calls them—“takers.” “Main Street” Americans criticize big-business executives for being the real takers, who slink away from a crumbling economy with oversized bonuses and severance packages spilling from their pockets. In a slinging contest, Greed is the ready scoop of mud.

I was taught in Catholic school that Greed is the acute desire for material possessions, wealth, power, or notoriety, a desire so powerful it drives the Greedy to take more than they need or deserve, and to deprive others. My mother reinforced these lessons, going to great lengths to impose fairness among her children at all times—she even meted out M&Ms in equal numbers and colors. And as a writer making my place in a community that celebrates art, self-expression, and camaraderie among peers, Greed seems particularly repulsive.

Greed had Amazon.com recruiting customers to scan prices in small bookstores, report them to Amazon, then walk out of those stores empty-handed in order to get a discount online. Greed drove the Super Stop & Shop in the town I visit on weekends to buy the land across the street just to shutter its “competition”—a tiny farm stand selling Jersey tomatoes and rhubarb pies. Greed characterizes Wall Street, oil empires, the 1%. I stand with Dickens, who called Scrooge “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!”

Writers, Greed is everything we stand against. Right?  Read More

Suzanne Farrell Smith with Cheryl Wilder

Wrath

Wrath doesn’t sound fierce enough for its meaning. It starts with a liquid consonant and ends with a breeze through the teeth, and it’s comprised of a single syllable that contains the first vowel sound we teach to children. Taking a cue from my co-author Cheryl’s introduction to this series, however, I listen for fury in the word, and at the right frequency, I hear it.

The flowing r deepens into the growl of a cornered cat. The short a escalates to an open-mouthed scream. The th whips into a spitting curse fixed on the enemy.

I’ve been afraid to look closely at Wrath. Because my husband produces for a TV news magazine, we frequently watch episodes about rage—between neighbors, ex-spouses, co-workers, siblings, classmates—festering and building until someone winds up dead. There’s a difference between Wrath and anger: anger can smolder indefinitely, ominous thundering that never becomes a storm, whereas Wrath explodes and destroys. The firenado.

I once came close to publicly releasing my own small firenado into the center of my writing life.  Read More

Suzanne Farrell Smith with Cheryl Wilder

Pride

I needed to be heard.

I was in the fifth grade in 1984, when missing children—almost always dead children—stared at me from the milk carton as I ate my breakfast. My school district fingerprinted students on thick notecards with an attached mug shot—just in case. And teaching “stranger danger” was abandoned as a useless strategy when it came to preventing child molestation. Now children feared adults they knew and had trusted. At the same time, I was learning to write poetry.

For a school assignment, I wrote a first person poem in quatrains about a father molesting his daughter and the mom keeping quiet about it. It was fictional, but there was no way for the school authorities to know that without questioning my divorced parents. Then I was questioned, by my father, in a conversation that lasted minutes. He asked only if he made me feel uncomfortable. No, I replied, growing uneasy with what it meant to communicate, both in writing and talking.

The negative attention confused me. I had no idea as I wrote the poem that I was doing anything wrong; and technically, I wasn’t. Unfortunately, being questioned about my poem made me feel that writing about my experiences, my feelings, and my interpretation of events was wrong. Being questioned hurt my Pride. And that wound prevented me from writing again until I was a senior in high school.  Read More

Cheryl Wilder with Suzanne Farrell Smith


From Joan Cyr, who took the photo “Sunset in the Orchard” above: While not a fan of winter, I’m drawn to its beauty. On this particular day, I snowshoed past the “no trespassing” sign to catch this snowy scene just before the sunset. See more of Cyr’s work here.