Beth Ann Fennelly
The Kenyon Review Credos
I believe in curiosity. When I’m interested in something, no matter how obscure or silly, I no longer question, “But will anyone care?” I’ve learned that any person, any idea, any object can be made interesting to a reader, if, first, it is regarded without presuppositions, and if, second, enough skill can be brought to bear in the writing. Likewise, I try not to fret—where is this going? What will X think of it? Can it be published? Only two questions matter: Am I learning? And, Am I having fun? Or maybe these questions are the same. After all, as Carl Sagan wrote in “Can We Know the Universe?”: “The use of our intelligence quite properly gives us pleasure. In this respect the brain is like a muscle. When we think well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.”
I believe in ecstasy.
I believe in the brain as a muscle, working in concert with other muscles. I believe the rhythm of our language is deeply linked to the rhythm of the body—the patterns of our breathing and eating and sleeping and lovemaking. Writing is the act of creating rhythm, which harmonizes us with the always rhythmic natural world.
The poems I thought up while running. While kneading dough. While nursing. The poems I typed one-handed with a dozing baby in my lap.
The poems I read and then read aloud and then memorized and recited until I was drunk on them. You know who you are.
A believer I am not in writer’s block. I say this fully confessing that I’ve had bereft bouts of frustrating inactivity and intellectual turpitude. Sometimes these are just the natural arid periods between projects (my former professor Miller Williams once told me, “You can’t get pregnant when you’re pregnant.”) But sometimes I’ve simply made decisions that were harmful to my writing life, and I called myself blocked—as opposed to calling myself weak. Procrastinating. Scared. Philip Pullman writes: “Plumbers don’t get plumbers’ block. Heart surgeons don’t get surgeons’ block. Why should writing be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working?” I believe in the difficulty of working. Ann Patchett writes, “If it were a complicated math proof you were wrestling with, instead of, say, the unknowable ending of chapter seven, would you consider yourself ‘blocked’ if you couldn’t figure it out right away, or would you think that the proof was difficult and required more consideration?” I believe in consideration. I believe in patience. Though I also believe I’ll never have enough of it.
I believe in the ear. The mouth. Tell me a story: that’s how culture began. Come close. Closer. I’ll tell you a story. The fullness of air as it rises through the windpipe and becomes words tunneling into the ear of the beloved.
I believe writing is a hedonistic act.
I believe writing educates the emotions. As in dreams, in which we psychically rehearse our fears and desires, writing helps us try out alternate realities.
I’m not a big believer in inspiration, or at least in waiting around for it. Inspiration comes from the Latin (doesn’t Latin confer instant authority?): in + spirare, “to breathe into.” And isn’t it pretty to think so—that the muse will tilt your head back and pinch your nose and give you the kiss of life, breathe into you something necessary, fully formed, inalienable. But that notion does violence to the truth, because, before the being-breathed-into, comes work. You write, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, and when you think it’s done, you read it and find it not finished, not glorious, not derived from genius, oh no, but amateur, embarrassing, unworthy. In a fit of self-loathing, you throw away the words (each word costing some portion of a precious hour) and start again.
There is little dignity in the creative life, is what I believe when it’s going poorly.
Or, as John Berryman (who published some of his Dream Songs in The Kenyon Review) whines, “It seems to me sometimes that others have easier jobs / & do them worse.”
I believe, therefore, that first, one must learn to love the working, and understand the working is the reward. And only then does the possibility for inspiration exist. After the work and the more work, there can come a time when something un-worked-for arrives. Something un-looked-for, presented as a gift. The poem arriving, unspooling, the fingers racing to keep up, to fasten it to the paper. When this happens, you do not feel the pride that comes with hard work. You feel gratitude. Have I ever received that gift, felt that gratitude? Ah, yes, my friends. I’ve had that. It is serendipitous and it is benedictory and it is unpredictable. I’ve learned not to sit around idly waiting for it. What should I do instead? You guessed it: work.
I believe this story, which I tell my college students, though it may be apocryphal. Arnold Palmer was in a close golf tournament when he nailed a difficult hole-in-one. An observer commented, “Man, you sure are lucky.”
“Yes,” said Palmer, bending to fish the ball from its pocket. “It’s a funny thing. The more I practice, the luckier I get.”
I believe in practice. But I also still believe in luck.
I believe in rewriting more than I believe in writing, which is one way I’ve changed from when I first got serious about writing in my early twenties. I believe in cutting. I now get as much pleasure from cutting a stanza or paragraph as in writing one.
I believe in dreams, speaking with my ghosts in dreams, that books will go on & on, that heaven has books, that books have saved lives, that books save my life a little bit every day. Nietzsche said that “A poet must be as serious as a child at play,” and the fact that my job is this serious play makes me know I’m lucky. I believe in luck. I said that already. Tell me a story.
More about The Kenyon Review Credos
In the early 1950s John Crowe Ransom, founding editor of The Kenyon Review, invited some of the most celebrated public intellectuals of the day, among them Northrop Frye, William Empson, and Leslie Fielder, to offer their personal credos on their professional philosophies and aspirations. (These essays, still fascinating, will be reprised on the KR website throughout 2014.) In marking The Kenyon Review’s 75th anniversary, sixteen poets, essayists, and fiction writers, authors who have published in our pages on our website from early in their careers, will present their own contemporary credos. Four will appear in the print journal and twelve in KROnline. —D.H.L.