Increasing “the ambient intelligence.”

There’s a lot more to writing than Snoopy knows. I suspect, though, that Charles Schulz understood.

I got to hang out last Saturday with a bunch of really cool people — writers. Some of them approach writing very differently from the way I do, so I learned a lot. Even better, I had some time over the weekend to chat with writers about the writing life and about, well — real life. My tribe.

I love stories. I love people who create stories, fiction and nonfiction. I love the fact that people do indeed create stories, love that we humans have been explaining the world to each other through stories since the moment we were able to do that, somewhere back in time around the campfires outside our caves.

But… here’s the thing. There is a real difference between people who write as a career — or people who aspire to write as a career — and people who do not.

And I’m not sure it’s fair — not sure it’s a service to good writing of any kind — to ignore this.

The main difference often appears to be writers who aim for agents, publishers, grants, awards, etc. as compared to writers who self-publish. That’s an obvious difference, but it isn’t always an accurate, or complete, comparison.

I’m talking about a difference that goes deeper.

I mean the difference between writers who make a practice of submitting their writing to critical scrutiny from the wider literary community, and those who chose not to. Scrutiny is what writers ask for every time they apply for a grant, or submit to a journal, or query an agent, or research publishers, knowing that success with any of those things means eventually working with an editor, who will ask for changes the writer probably prefers not to make.

Making stuff up is fun. Revision is not.

But it’s necessary if we are to “increase the ambient intelligence” as George Saunders puts it in his honest, and funny, essay, about constructing his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. He invites writers to “imagine [their readers] generously.”

We should do that.

Here’s a secret I wish I had know when I first started writing fiction and poetry: Criticism makes my work better. Lots better. So I plan my time to include grant applications (and the feedback therefrom when I’m declined) and submissions to journals and contests and public readings. It’s the reason I will spend significant time and effort seeking an agent when I finish the manuscript for my first novel later this year.

I solicit and read and reflect on every piece of feedback/criticism/critique I can get from writers who know more than I do. And yes, it took some time to steel myself for this, to understand the difference between those who “get” my work and those who don’t.

Every writer I know who is willing to do this has three things in common: 1) they say that they cannot not write; 2) they write to know themselves; and 3) they read intelligent writers — voraciously.

They’ve stumbled on a great truth. We might as well write to know ourselves, because that’s going to happen anyway.

If we admit that goal to ourselves, it simply happens sooner.

I was blown away this weekend when Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux performed part of her middle-grade novel for us. She’d printed the wrong passage from The Marvelous Imagination of Katie Addams, so she punted. And — wow. She had us participating with Katie as she dug in a sand bank and discovered the door to an Egyptian tomb, advanced to grab the golden scepter in the mummy’s hand, dropped it, ran back through creepy passages to the ancient doorway, and buried it again in the sand. Wow, I thought, this isn’t just a story that Rose has memorized.

This is a story that’s in her bones.

Rose self-published this novel. She leads a writers’ group at her local library. She visits schools, and just about anywhere else she’s invited. She has a plan to get her work into the world and she devotes her time, and her efforts, to follow it. She participates fearlessly in the wider literary community.

Staci Drouillard is finishing her manuscript for Walking the Old Road for University of Minnesota Press. She’s spent years researching the history of Chippewa City in Cook County, Minnesota, interviewing Ojibwe elders, seeking permission to publish oral histories and photographs. When she joined us on Saturday to read from her work, I was immediately struck by how quietly and firmly she grounds herself in her material. She told us about the Ojibwe tradition of written history going back hundreds of years to the time of the migration from the East Coast to Lake Superior, about people’s relationship to place, about roads as conduits to other worlds, about the responsibility we have to preserve something once we name it.

Big ideas.

The passage she read was from an interview with an elder who described walking the Old Road into Grand Marais with his grandmother when he was a boy, pausing near Halfway Creek on the mile-long journey to eat the lunch she packed for her small grandson, stopping at a cafe in town, watching his grandmother enjoy the ice cream they ordered.

Small ideas.

But so very, very human. I was right there with that small boy and his grandmother, walking the road into town. Staci made it so with her lyrical writing, because this story is — literally — from the marrow in her bones.

Shoshanna Matney has just finished her first novel, Dog Lake, and is deciphering the feedback from the three agents who responded in ways that made sense to her. She sent dozens of inquiries just to get to this point. She’s already begun her second novel, but now chooses to return to the first one, and its revision. A daunting task.

Shoshanna read a passage that had in common with her childhood only this: a dog named Jack who escaped one night for a few hours. Her writing spun this skillfully, made a window into the book’s tension between the silence of peace, and the silence of secrecy. Two sisters witness their mother lying prone on the ice of the lake behind their house, trying to rescue their dog. They sneak back into the house before their parents know they’ve been out. “Don’t tell,” the older sister whispers. I was standing right there inside the younger sister when she came face-to-face with her father, weighing what to tell him. Bone deep.

These are writers who amaze and exhilarate, who make my heart stop for just long enough to help me know I’m alive.

I’m lucky to have many examples of inspiration, from this past weekend, and elsewhere. One of my favorite North Shore writers, Nina Simonowicz, couldn’t join us on Saturday. It’s not an exaggeration to say that her first book, Nina’s North Shore Guide is part of the reason I moved to Duluth, nearly twenty years after first reading it. She made this region come alive for me. It was the first time I read a nonfiction book that so clearly voiced the human being behind the geography her writing described. A bone-deep voice.

Nina self-published the first edition, with a quote on the back from her banker that said, “You should buy this book.” Eventually, University of Minnesota Press asked to publish it, and asked for revisions and editing and expansion. Nina is still at it, writing and maintaining the seminal guide to the North Shore. She makes it possible for others to live their stories in this landscape — “the prehistoric North Shore ridegline rising out of Lake Superior” — and maybe for some of us to write about it.

Every creative effort deserves praise. We should be a community of writers, celebrating and supporting each other’s work. We should cheer each other on. Of course we should.

But we can hold each other accountable, too. We can encourage literary and artistic criticism, because it makes our own work better. It raises the bar for creative endeavors for the communities where we live, work, and hang out.

We can “increase the ambient intelligence.” My bones tell me, in this era of fungible truth, it’s even more important for writers to pay attention to this.

Whatever credibility my writing has I owe to writers who weren’t afraid to show their bone marrow.

I’m grateful to them.


2 thoughts on “Increasing “the ambient intelligence.”

  1. Thank you for this insightful blog. When I was a young writer, I really had a hard time sending out my heart and soul into the world. It was too sacred, and criticism was difficult to take. I took it personally. One thing I learned over the years is writing is subjective, very subjective. We need to keep that in mind when looking at the comments from others and have the confidence to take and use what we believe will be helpful to our work and discard the rest.
    The way my life is orchestrated at this time, I am not part of sharing with a writers’ group, which I think would help me tremendously. The writing I do is limited to writing for myself, though I hope, in time, I will again be sending it out into the world.

    • I’m glad you found this helpful, Gail. Writing is an endeavor we do first and foremost for ourselves, isn’t it? Sounds to me as if you already practice that! I enjoyed your blog just now, and remember seeing it around the time we met (at Chanhassen Library, I think?) Yes, you ARE a writer! I hope that one day you’ll send your writing out into the world again. Please, let me know when you do!

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