Intern Post, Briauna Kittle: How the Writer Got Her Start: A Look at the Art of Creation

Humans have always been obsessed with how things came to be. Originally, this started with existence, how humans arrived on Earth, how our planet was formed, what caused the lights in the sky; once those topics were milked for all they were worth, these stories narrowed down: how the rhino got its skin in the classic porquoi tale best told by Rudyard Kipling, how narcissism created the echo and reflection from the Greek myth, or why male genitalia looks the way it does as given in the Winnebago Trickster Cycle from the Winnebago Native American oral tradition. Perhaps the most interesting thing is how the same stories are told in a multitude of ways. This could be attributed to use of oral tradition, the passing down of stories through voice, carrying through different narrators with different styles of speaking and different interpretations of the same events. In this way, the story is always changing and refining through a never-ending cycle of editors in order to become the tales we know today.

woodcut of elephant getting its trunk

A woodcut by Rudyard Kipling showing how the elephant got its trunk for his book of porquoi tales, Just So Stories.

There’s something satisfying about creation, too, like scratching an itch you didn’t even know existed. The act of creation through writing, art, music, and crafts is highly valued, even though nobody wants to do it. Everyone dreams of writing a novel but taking on writing as a profession is still generally met with hesitance (“Creative writing? What do you plan to do with that, teach?”). However, in a more visual sense, such as works-in-progress videos by various artists or with crafts like crocheting or knitting, people are hypnotized. I find there’s nothing more calming than watching someone make a watercolor painting, and when the work is finished, I want to find the artist and thank them for allowing me to watch. When I crochet in public, I’m always greeted with a “What are you knitting?” (I’ve given up correcting them) followed by the person watching me work as I wrap the yarn around the hook and pull it through the loops.

The downside to creating is, of course, dealing with doubt. I don’t think anybody in creation stories ever doubted their actions, but being in the arts requires juggling doubt and dancing with failure. One of the ways I personally deal with this is by writing my own creation stories. I’ve found it kick-starts my imagination and returns me to the mindset of seven-year-old me who loved to write how things came to be, to the point of writing a chapter book about star formation. Creativity is a must, too. Why do snails have shells? Well, obviously, a snail started out as a slug and decided it wanted to become strong, like the ant, so it found a shell to live in and now carries its own house on its back as a strength building exercise. It’s unscientific but gives us a new way of looking at the world which is exactly what literature and the arts aim to do: show new perspectives so that we may live without hurting others. Bonding through any form of creation, especially through storytelling, gives us the chance to understand something new, both in intellectual and empathetic standpoints. Even if your next work doesn’t make you the next Charles Dickens, it’s still creation and has the possibility to change someone’s viewpoint. Even if it’s not something you want published, tell the story to a few friends and tell them to pass it on to someone else; in a few generations, you’ll have a masterpiece.

Guest Post, Tyler Sage: On Being a Western Writer

I once sat in on a poetry workshop with the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. I am not a poet, but he had agreed to come to my graduate school after a reading and I wanted to hear what he had to say. I snuck in and took a seat at the table, hoping that I wouldn’t be noticed. When Walcott entered, he took his seat, looked over the assembled poets, looked back again at me, and asked “What’s Woody Harrelson doing here?” (This is a remark I’ve gotten many times, although never from someone with a Nobel.)

When the chuckling around the table subsided, he let his smile fade too, took up the stack of poems, gazed at them for a moment, and then set about lambasting the assembled poets. He insisted that writing is a relationship with power; that it is a relationship that cannot be conducted in any serious way from inside the dominant center. Writing, he said, must be conducted “from the provinces.” According to Walcott, every young poet in the room was writing as if he or she was (or wanted to be) in “New York City, looking out at the rest of us.” He meant New York City literally, I think, but also metaphorically, as a kind of mental space in which artistic insiders, by virtue of being on the inside, come to be allied with the centers of cultural power and the dominant narrative. According to Walcott, this was an inexcusable artistic mistake.

The relationship with the center of power is one that (whether or not we agree with Walcott on the particulars) bears directly on writing about the American West. Like many people from the region, I grew up with a host of “Western” narratives and beliefs. I was raised in the great outdoors, fishing and backpacking, and I imbibed a heavy dose of frontier mythology – cowboys and gunfighters, Indians, pioneers, mountain men, pulp novels and Western movies. This is classic provincial stuff – the kind of heritage that, at a college back East, or a cocktail party on the Upper East Side, is often treated with a solicitous condescension. As Marilynne Robinson has noted, when she tells Eastern folks that she is from Idaho, one common response is “Then how can you write a book?” And yet it is also this province which has given the nation what is perhaps our deepest cultural myth: the self-reliant pioneer, the immigrant moving west to find land and freedom, the illimitable expansion of possibility, our Edenic vision of our nation.

In Walcott’s terms, then, the West is caught in a kind of paradox: it has the status of a province, and yet its myth has been enshrined as the national dream. Being a Western writer ties you unavoidably to this paradox. You are a provincial, a writer who will always, like it or not, operate from outside the center of power; but it is exactly towards this province’s myth of the radical individual that the American center has always wanted to feel it is moving.

An it is indeed a myth. We should all know by now. Beautiful and destructive, hopeful and violently acquisitive, forced relentlessly onto us by a culture that adores power and spectacle and self-help mantras, and yet with little regard for truth, either historical or human. Post-colonial writers like Walcott have always been viscerally aware of the effects of this, because they come from places that have born the brunt of its damage. I wonder if it’s time for more Western writers to engage with this awareness.