Tag Archives: creative writing

Making Art in Troubled Times


Image from the webpage of the Ashmolean Museum: http://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/highlights/alfred-jewel.html 

I will admit it: after the election in November, I succumbed to a sense of defeat. What is the point, I moaned, if autocracy and tyranny are not merely accepted but welcomed by the masses, if the great ideal of a democratic country is systematically dismantled before our eyes? Why bother with anything, much less with the last fifty pages of a novel that no one will ever read?

At the time, I was working through the last part of a story I’d begun a couple of years earlier, and I was ready to give it up, because, well, why would I finish it when the world as I know it is coming to an end? (My feelings arose not only because of the U.S. election results or the ensuing realization that a foreign power had tinkered with our “free elections,” but also because of the global rise of a dangerous populism, coupled with imminent global climate change.)

But a good friend gave me some advice, and I soldiered on and completed the draft. Right now, I am steadily working on it, revision after revision. And I am doing this not because I think my novel can change the world. It certainly won’t; it won’t be read by more than a hundred people, and that’s if I’m lucky.

But this short essay is not about the art of writing without readers; I will deal with that in a future post. For now, all I want to do is to encourage everyone who reads this blog to go on and continue their artistic activities. I say this not as a writer, or even as a reader, but as a scholar. And I have a very simple reason for doing so.

Art is the residue left by human culture. When civilizations disappear, when lives and institutions have crumbled into the dust, what remains is the art they created. Some of this art arises from genius, like the works of Mozart and Shakespeare; some of it comes from normal people, like the rest of us. But we need it all–every last scrap of it, not only the wonderful pieces that make us cry with joy or sadness, but even the average and ungainly works of art, because even bad art is an expression of human experience, and in the end, it is the experience of being human that binds us together on this lonely little planet.

So go ahead with your art. Draw, paint, weave, write, compose or play music. Do not worry that you are fiddling as Rome burns. Rome will, ultimately, burn–history tells us that. But what is left behind are wonderful murals that will take your breath away, mosaics, epic poems, statues and monumental structures. Don’t worry about whether your art will be appreciated; it is the act of making it that is important, not whether or not it is celebrated. Think of that lonely monk who produced Beowulf; he  was probably scared shitless that his Anglo-Saxon culture would be erased by the next Viking invasion, but he fought off this feeling of futility and kept going, thank goodness. Remember his small act of courage, try to emulate it, and above all, keep going.

Do not be afraid of working in the darkness; you may not be able to dispel it, but your work could provide light for others, not only now, but in the future as well.


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Homage to Miss Pennybacker

photoOne of my literary heroes is someone whom you’ve never heard of–and I’m not referring to a little-known essayist from the eighteenth century or an obscure poet from the Harlem Renaissance. No, this person is someone that you’ve literally never heard of, but I think it’s important that someone sing her praises at least once before she fades into complete obscurity.

My hero is Ruth Pennybacker, who taught creative writing at the University of Houston from the mid-1930s until the early 1970s. Her students included, among many others, the poet Vassar Miller and the novelist Donald Barthelme. She taught her students well, encouraged them in their work, urged them to enter contests (in which they were surprisingly successful), and created an environment in which creative writing flourished.

Yet as far as I can tell, she never published a single poem, short story, or essay. She was a rara avis: a selfless writing teacher who helped foster creativity and artistry in those around her, without possessing an ounce of ambition or professional jealousy. Getting her students to write well was enough for Miss Pennybacker: she herself had no apparent desire to enter the game of writing, publishing, and posturing.

About fifteen years ago, I wrote a magazine article about the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. I delved into old library archives, studied decade-old issues of the university’s literary magazines, and interviewed some alumni and faculty members. Over and over again, I heard Miss Pennybacker’s name from the old timers, those who remembered the university before creative writing programs in this country experienced explosive growth and popularity. These older faculty members and students referred to their long-dead teacher with nostalgic smiles and softened gazes, and I realized then that she had been an important person, perhaps even a critically important person, in the lives of many emergent writers.

Nowadays I see Miss Pennybacker as a midwife of sorts. Perhaps, being from an earlier generation and therefore old-fashioned, she might not mind being described as a handmaiden to art, a servant to the creative impulse, a person who waited on others in order to guide that impulse and shape it, enabling inexperienced writers to bring their work to fruition. So just for today, I ask my readers to join me in raising a metaphorical glass in a to toast Ruth Pennybacker. Just for today, I ask that we celebrate Miss Pennybacker’s selfless devotion to good writing, remembering that in the words of Milton, “they also serve who only stand and wait.”

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