Writers on the Writing Life: Steven Gillis

Cover of Steven Gillis's 2010 novel out from Black Lawrence Press

I miss teaching.  If I could find the time in my days, I would return in a heartbeat to Eastern Michigan University.  Not that this is possible with all the other irons my fire is heating, and with my wife’s threat to leave me if I take on one more freaking thing!  And true, too, even when I had my gig as a writing professor, I was operating outside the norm; able to pick the time I taught and the one class I would teach a semester to upper level writing students.  I didnt have to commit to a full-time course load, didnt have to participate in the administrative bullshit that can suck the soul right out of an already stressed writer working a heavy teaching schedule while trying to squeeze out time to actually do their own writing.

Most of my writer friends who have gigs as professors or lecturers at a University find the job has a combination of cool and cruel to it.  They enjoy being able to spend their working hours invested in the near and dear of literature and writing, but the grind of the long hours and trying to impart their knowledge to students who – most at least – wont ever demonstrate any appreciable skills as “real”  writers has an exhausting effect.  You can’t teach writing.  I have heard that phrase tossed about so many times that before I began to teach I almost believed it.    The fact of the matter is the claim simply isnt true.   You can teach writing.  You can’t give someone talent.  But you can teach someone the process of writing and improve what skills they have.  And isnt this what teaching is all about?  Not to make rock stars out of the tone deaf, but to share what you know and help those who sincerely want to improve.  The best experiences I had as a teacher were working with my less gifted students who nonetheless truly wanted to learn how to write.

As I have now been a writer going on – Christ – 40 years, I also found what I love most about teaching is the ability to explain the process and get students to understand there’s no such thing as a muse, what there is to writing is a blue collar roll up your sleeves and just do it attitude that Nike be damned existed well before the running shoe.
When I first started writing, I had the passion but was otherwise clueless about the process.  Leaving talent out of the equation for the moment, it is most often the lack of experience that undermines a well intended would-be writer.  When a young writer has a bad day, their immediate reaction is to question their abilities, to think they must suck and what the hell what the hell what the HELL!! It is only after staying the course as a writer that we begin to learn that the process doesn’t ever change, that having a rough day – or week or month – doesnt mean one cant write it means you are a writer experiencing the inescapable torture.   The only thing important is doing the work.  Daily.  Where I used to go crazy with insecurity, I am now totally calm about the process, know a rough day is still a productive day, that the key is just working the page.

This is what I tried to convey to my students, how writing is a freakin discipline, that you have to work hard.  There is never – and I mean never – a day when I finish writing that I am not completely physically and mentally exhausted.  If anyone has the misfortune of trying to deal with me in the hour after I finish my writing day, well lets just say its not pretty.  Writing is hard.  It takes a focus like none other.  You cant write if you are distracted, the application of one’s efforts have to be total. And you can’t write if you aren’t willing to commit.

An older and quite successful writer once told me it takes 10 years of writing shit before one even begins to know what they are doing.  Well, as much as I didnt want to believe this at the start of my career, I can surely attest to this now.  So, how to convey this to a classroom full of young and eager students who think they are top dog and ready to  publish.  What I did in my class, which cut against the grain and shocked the hell out my students each and every new semester, was to tell them instead of writing 5 stories during our term together, we were going to write one story each and rewrite it at least 5 times.
“WHAT?”  was the response.  “Rewrite?  What the hell is that?”  They all just wanted to crank and move on to something new.   I held my ground.  Class after class.  And class after class, always, within 3 weeks these students who had never rewritten a story before, had never put themselves back into a work, began to groove on the idea of actually reworking a story.  At the end of every semester, always, these initially dubious students thanked me for showing them what is the essence of all good writing – the rewrite.

That the art to writing is in the rewriting is, for me, a given – now.  Along with understanding the process of writing, these two rules are invaluable.  (The third rule would be to read read read and READ.  The fourth to drink, but I digress.)    Everything in life evolves and changes, requires a rewrite and a knowledge of what is going on.  Relationships change, how we keep our love life going.  I have been married 17 years and  the totality of my relationship with my wife has evolved in 1,000 different ways since we were 17 years younger.  What is the same about me is no doubt my extremes have become more understandable – at least to me if not my wife – my settling into the routine of what I need to achieve in my personal and professional life.  Everything is a process.    Everyday a writer must apply his/herself to the challenge and run the risk of writing shit, of exhausting one’s self physically and emotionally and intellectually.  The same as we do with any worthwhile relationship.  What is essential to whatever it is we want to do is hanging tough.  With writing – and in life – the process doesnt necessarily get easier but it becomes more readily understood the longer we stay the course. An old dog of a writer knows how to get through bad days, knows not to panic in the face of a rough stretch.  As said, in this way the experience one gathers as they commit to the process of writing is much the same as the process of maturing in our everyday life. Understand the effort, know not every day will be a success.  Be aware that not everything goes smoothly and most things require a rewrite.  This is what I’ve come to learn and is the best advise I can give.

Steven Gillis is the author of Walter Falls, The Weight of Nothing, Giraffes, Temporary People, and, most recently The Consequence of Skating (October 2010). His stories, articles, and book reviews have appeared in over four dozen journals, and his books have been finalists for the Independent Publishers Book of the Year Award and the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year. A three-year member of the Ann Arbor Book Festival Board of Directors, and a finalist for the 2007 Ann Arbor News Citizen of the Year, Steve taught writing at Eastern Michigan University and founded 826michigan in 2003.  Steve is the co-founder of Dzanc Books  www.dzancbooks.org along with Dan Wickett.  All proceeds from Steve’s writing go to help support Dzanc Books. Contact: steve@dzancbooks.org

About Okla Elliott

I am currently an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. I hold a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a legal studies certificate from Purdue University. My work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, The Hill, Huffington Post, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, as well as being listed as a "notable essay" in Best American Essays 2015. My books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction).
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3 Responses to Writers on the Writing Life: Steven Gillis

  1. Kyle Minor says:

    Good post.

  2. Thomas Baughman says:

    I thought this was a good piece with important advice.

  3. raulclement says:

    Indeed. Very charming and lively and honest. The advice about discipline and patience and not getting down on yourself is advice I often forget.

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