A Parting Letter to My Creative Writing Students

December 6, 2018 § 13 Comments

By Matthew Burnside

Burnside Author PhotoDear Student,

Certain lessons you will learn only with time, earned like scars, as you discover the weird little nuances and idiosyncrasies of your voice and what you have to offer total strangers through your words. My hope is that you do not forget that writing, more than mere therapy, can be so much: (1) an act of resistance to a material world at times, seemingly, bent on destroying the integrity of your spirit, your faith in something ineffable and unspeakable. (2) A way of making sense out of the great tumbling chaos – with all its inscrutable runes, myriad ecstasies and agonies. (3) And/or, more importantly perhaps, a means of helping others to make sense out of their own gnawing loneliness, grief, misery, madness . . . a way of reaching one’s hands across the careless void to haunt your readers with love—a depth of decency, empathy, understanding of which perhaps they didn’t even know they were deserving.

A quick note on rejection: It will come, and you will live beyond it, I promise. As it staggers you though, racking you with ruin, I pray you will not shirk from your task but develop thorns, as the blooming rose, and swim through those perceived defeats to discover the value of your struggling. Of always moving toward and not ever standing still, in love with your searching, with departing and not arriving. My hope is that you embrace all that is difficult and bursting with ambitious failure, unafraid to risk your ego in order to better your craft, and learn something about yourself, your style, your ideas about being a human being in a world full of other human beings. But my greatest hope is that you never settle, or cheapen your art, or suppress your youness in exchange for useless applause or popularity. Better to have your work – that which comes ripped straight from the roots of your heart – read and understood truly by three people than misunderstood but loved by fifty. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Art is only for those willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it”.

Always ask yourself why you’re writing. Are you telling the stories that matter to you? Exploring for the sake of exploring? Playing for the sake of playing? Getting lost for the sake of getting lost? Reveling in the unmappable mutations of your words and constructing language cathedrals on blank page tundras to lure the wild wolves to prayer?

Don’t worry if your book hasn’t been published yet. Don’t worry if you have no fan club. If you’re writing, you’re doing your job. You’re building a thing immutable. You’re working toward holy somethingness. You’re carving a soul out of smoke and skulls. You’re being a writer, and I promise someday these ink scars will thank you.

Life has taught me that success, contrary to popular belief, does not consist of a single meteoric leap forward overnight but is rather a series of excruciatingly tedious baby steps so slow you’re convinced at times you’re not even in motion, with an occasional embarrassing trip that knocks you several large steps backwards to leave you reeling—your ego-equilibrium atilt and confidence sore. The “successful” person then is whoever doesn’t buckle under the weight of their own skin, with enough patience to stand firm in their own two shoes. To resist the temptation to choose the easier path, or sit on the curb cursing gravity for not rewarding them with instant gratification, instead continuing to lurch stubbornly toward their dream at a snail’s pace.

Remember that the most precious of all human elements is imagination, second only to love, for in imagination, as in love, all things are possible.

To this I would add: cynicism may be fashionable but it is also cheap. Easy. Retain your sincerity. Store it up. Salvage it. Do not lose that luster of Yes that keeps you buoyant among the blood-fanged sharks of this world who would rather see you sinking, faithless for all your fellow kin and kind.

In short, strive to be that which helps all beside you float onward through the storm.

This and so many more things I wish for you, as you go out into the universe and make it your own by wrecking it and rebuilding it with words conjured from that deepest, most intimate part of you.

May you leave it kinder than you found it.


Your Professor Who Knows You Will Accomplish Wonders

Matthew Burnside is the author of a few books and chapbooks, including Postludes (KERNPUNKT) and Rules To Win the Game (Spuyten Duyvil Press). He resides in Texas and is currently finishing up a novel about a girl who raises wolves in an abandoned theme park.


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