When I sit down to write, I appear to be by myself in front of a computer. Writing is a solitary activity—sort of. What I'm really doing when I'm at work writing is conversing with other voices: the voices of writers read the night before; the voices of authors on my bookshelves who I turn to for fresh ways to begin or end a story, play with time, place, dialogue, words and punctuation, or ideas about history, philosophy, and genre (poetry, novel, short story, essay, memoir, or whatever)—voices much more daring and smart than my own. But I also love engaging with the voices of my writing colleagues and teachers, people I know personally who care passionately about writing. Maybe these personal relationships are not so important to every writer but they're absolutely essential to me—despite the pitfalls that come with such dialogues.
Here's a case in point. I am a Jewish writer who recently wrote a story about a young Jewish girl from Minneapolis whose uncle in New York, a stockbroker and religious Jew, gets involved in a financial scandal. I gave a working draft of the story to a few writer friends, including another Jewish author, who absolutely hated the piece. To paraphrase her words, she said that my story's stereotypical depiction of Jews as greedy, selfish and lazy made her feel angry and sad. First, I would like to say that I would not recommend using this kind of emotional, vague, damning language to critique another writer's work. Her words offered nothing constructive. But I found her gut reaction helpful in a roundabout way. She exposed her own biases, which made it easy for me to distance myself from her words and wonder what I could actually take away from them that might be useful. What I took away was not that my story was anti-Semitic and needed to either be trashed or undergo a complete plot change (many people in New York's financial world happen to be venal, Jewish or not) but that I needed to stand by my story by sharpening its language and deepening its characterizations. I wrote a new draft with that in mind—a better version of the story.
For me, a community of reader-writers to bounce work and ideas off of feeds my writing and helps push it to unpredictable places (sometimes against a wall, sometimes into another stratosphere). Not that I also don't need to shut those other voices off altogether and go sit at the computer and think for myself. But as I sit here now, in the midst of all the other pressures of a Sunday morning: the shoveling, cleaning, laundry, phone calls to relatives, news from the Middle East and Wisconsin; if I can imagine my colleagues also sitting in front of a writing instrument grappling with their thoughts and dreams (ignited by the invitation of their friend Dave Oppegaard for instance) I can give myself permission to do the same.
Alison Morse's poetry and prose has been published in Natural Bridge, Water~Stone, Rhino, Opium Magazine, The Potomac, and a bunch of other journals. She is currently spit-polishing a novel, The Beethoven Frieze, about animators during Yugoslavia's collapse. For twenty years she animated everything from cigarettes and glass shards to Barbie doing aerobics on the beach in Cancun and taught at MCAD and the U of M, among other places. Her animated films have been screened at festivals throughout the country and on public TV. She also designed animation for dance and theater performances. Now, she runs TalkingImageConnection, an organization that brings together writers, contemporary visual artists and new audiences. Check out the TIC calendar at www.talkimage.org.