Inspiring A Writer Manqué from Brockton

(Manqué: short of or frustrated in the fulfillment of one’s aspirations or talents—used postpositively; i.e., a poet manqué)

Guest post by JW Rogers

Dinner was winding down and I’d just gotten into an unlikely conversation.  A man I didn’t know had been sitting across from me all night and I’d written him off because of his silly bow-tie, foppish mustache, silver hair and wide-striped bespoke shirt.  We were with a big group and conversation had been firing all around the table about the latest trends in design, the recovering economy, first jobs and childhood memories. It had been easy to avoid talking to him.

When coffee came, he leaned across the table and asked, “Where exactly did you grow up near Brockton?”

I told him East Bridgewater, by the pond.  He smiled and told me that he was from Brockton.  He’d grown up on the west side of town, the good part, and had gone off to one of the prep schools nearby.

The perfunctory memory sharing quickly transformed into something more substantial and provocative.  He’d been “an observer,” he said, inside and outside the thick striations of generations of New Englanders who had seen their fortunes rise and fall, the tense artifice of an early industrial economy that lay fallow, the coiled violence that rest beneath the calmest moments.  The way he looked at things back then was exciting.  I could see where I’d gone wrong in a novel I’d started about the place and then put aside.  I mentioned it.

“I’m a writer manque,” he said.  “I often tell myself to write about that time, but I can’t keep it up when I start.”

How many times do we say that to ourselves?  Hear that from someone else who writes?  The immediate dismissal, as if the writing club was so exclusive and so selective that you know even before you try to join that you don’t have a chance to get in.

My wife had her coat on and was heading to the door.  I had just a moment and I wanted to say something that might make a difference.

“Don’t look at it that way,” I said. “If you walked in to a room and saw a child scribbling on paper with crayons until every inch was covered in the color of mud, what would you say?” I asked.

“I’d say that it was really good.”

“When you start to write, what do you think?”

He didn’t answer.

“You’ve got to be gentle with yourself, like you would be with a child.  You have say to yourself, ‘Have fun.  That’s great. Do some more.’  Let yourself play.”

He nodded his head.

“And when you are writing, you have to write to the one person on earth who is fascinated by what you have to say, who says to you when you pause to gather your thoughts, ‘Go on.  Tell me more.  I want to know what happens next.’  And you keep telling them.”

I was standing then.  He’d gotten up too.  He was short and trim. I towered over him.

“When you start writing and you hear all the voices in your head that make you want to stop…and believe me, you’ll hear them for as long as you write…you have to say, ‘Leave me alone. I’m playing and there’s someone who really is fascinated by what I’m saying.’  Then, when the voices leave, just keep moving ahead.  Because you’ll discover the best thing about writing about things that you care about:  you learn something that you never knew before.”

We shook hands.  I told him I’d love to see anything he wrote, if he wanted to share.

As my wife and I navigated our way down the shadowy steps outside the restaurant, I thought to myself that it was easy to proclaim those two key concepts of encouragement, but that it was a constant struggle to hear the same positive voices inside yourself.  That’s one of the privileges of writing.  You earn your way into the club by dint of perseverance and courage.  No one can tap you.  And no one can keep you out.

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JW Rogers is a writer who understands the struggle against our internal voices of doubt.  His were so strong they kept him from writing for nearly 15 years.  You can see recent samples of his work at www.drmstream.com.

17 Responses to Inspiring A Writer Manqué from Brockton
  1. j
    March 29, 2011 | 3:06 AM

    “No one can tap you. And no one can keep you out.” I so love that. I was recently talking to another writer. I told her that I’d tried something risky in a story and felt nervous, and it wasn’t until I saw another writer do the same thing that I was certain “it was okay.” I was telling her that it bothered me a little, how relieved and validated I felt.

    I am just learning the art of trusting my instincts… oh, and my perseverance and courage.

  2. JW Rogers
    March 29, 2011 | 7:34 AM

    Thanks for the comment Judy. And thanks for letting me contribute to this great site…I love the energy and support that you offer writers. It helps stave off that lonely feeling that you describe of doing something and then realizing that you are way out on a limb and totally not sure it’s a good place to be.

    You do a great job of handling the first challenge of writing…just write. Everything else flows from that.

  3. Lydia
    March 29, 2011 | 7:45 AM

    People talk about publishing changing because of technology – but writers are changing too. We don’t have to be alone with the no-voices anymore. If we need to hear “yes! yes, me too!” we have, or can find, someplace to go. How fitting that it’s often *more* invisible voices helping us beat back that dark!

    • JW Rogers
      March 29, 2011 | 7:50 AM

      That’s so true, Lydia. I can’t put a value on how engaging, reassuring & challenging the community that I’ve found on Twitter has been to the creative work that I do. The odd thing for me is that this community has given me confidence in telling the simple story and finding the simple voice. People like you who are tireless advocates for your fellow writers make the digital world a source of comfort and inspiration.

      When you give creatives a way to share, it puts a lot of pressure on the packagers. They have to add real value to the creative dialogue — help find audience, shape work, justify the use of the platform for talent. If they don’t, the consumers leave. It happened in music, it happened in video and it will happen in every other creative field.

    • j
      March 29, 2011 | 10:52 AM

      Yes! It feels like a terrible time to be a writer because the publishing industry is such a mess, but I agree with you. It’s an empowering time to be a writer. Everything’s changing and there have never been more ways to be heard.

  4. fearofwriting
    Twitter: fearofwriting
    March 29, 2011 | 2:39 PM

    Thank you for sharing this story. Not only beautifully written but full of truth and acceptance.

    Like you, I sometimes find it easier to encourage other writers and believe in them to the hilt. But saying it to others is a way to say it to ourselves, as well. The message still sinks in, even though seemingly directed outward. It’s the intent that counts.

    I hope the writer manqué you described from the dinner party found the courage to pick up his writing again; his own voice that would remind him about the child with the crayon. I found myself bonding deeply with him through your written portrait and hoping for his best. I treasure the love you put into this—first by the act of offering him that light and secondly by telling the story with so much heart-elegance. Finding a place that would be the perfect fit for your story was the final act of love. (And we’re lucky it was our blog. :))

    ~ Milli

    • JW Rogers
      March 29, 2011 | 10:51 PM

      Wow, Milli. That’s very generous of you. I’m glad you found the post useful and I hope it strikes a chord with some of your readers.

      I don’t know about an act of love — although J. might classify it like that in her Love Project. For me it’s a gut reaction, like pulling someone out of the way of oncoming traffic. You don’t want to see them get hurt, and I don’t think that there are many things that hurt as much as turning away from your own creativity.

      Again, thanks for sharing your platform with me.

  5. catherine
    March 29, 2011 | 7:34 PM

    I enjoyed your post JW and was pulled in by the first sentence.

    It isn’t always easy to make suggestions, especially to new acquaintances. I admire your courage in giving the writer manque encouragement to just keep writing when he feels he can’t.

    • JW Rogers
      March 29, 2011 | 10:52 PM

      Thanks Catherine.

      It’s funny that you say that. One of the reasons I wrote this was because I drove away from the restaurant wondering just why I’d unloaded on the poor guy that way. Sure, it might of been helpful, but I thought to myself that I probably came on too strong. After all, it was just an idle conversation.

      Writing it out helped me understand why I cared so much.

  6. Aisha
    March 29, 2011 | 10:01 PM

    Great post and so very very true! It is easier said than done to feel positive about your initial efforts!

    • JW Rogers
      March 29, 2011 | 11:00 PM

      Thanks Aisha.

      When I was in high school, I ended up doing a private workshop with the writer Jaimy Gordon, who was teaching at Brown then. It was an amazing experience: I was like a talented little puppy and Jaimy would give me different exercises to see just what kind of tricks I could do. I wrote a collection of short stories as a final project — she took painstaking care to comment on each, was frank and encouraging, and set me off into the world pretty much on track, I’m sure she thought.

      After a couple of years at college I was an insecure and uncertain mess. I’d written a bunch of things and gotten far away from where I wanted to be going. I didn’t believe I was a writer. I sent Jaimy a letter asking her just that, Was I a writer. She sent back a generous and considerate response that could be summed up in one line. Yes, you are a writer.

      I didn’t buy it.

      When I read the post you put up yesterday, I heard Jaimy’s voice channeling through me saying, hey, Aisha, don’t sweat it. You’re a writer. Being a writer is just like a being a Mom. Once you’ve done it, no one can take it away from you. You do your own kind of Mom-ing and you do your own kind of writing.

      When you look at someone and say, ‘I write’ in a simple declaration, you’re giving them a chance to prove themselves. You don’t have anything to prove. If they say, “really, what?” then they are OK. If they say, “Are you published?” move on. They won’t get what drives you anyway.

  7. Patrick Ross
    Twitter: patrickrwrites
    March 30, 2011 | 6:52 AM

    This is a great post, JW, inspiring and informative.

    Thank you for sharing the word “manque.” I’m a wordie, and I know I’ve come across that word before, but I didn’t know what it meant.

    I’m going to spend some time reflecting on that word. It’s a negatively powerful self-description, because its terminal quality can foster a self-fulfilling prophecy. But as Milli knows, I recently embraced my creative side after years of “manque” status, so that level of thinking doesn’t have to be a terminal condition. Hopefully the gentleman you describe made that connection.

    The place to start, it seems, is by avoiding self-limiting description.

    • JW Rogers
      March 30, 2011 | 7:22 AM

      Thank for the nice comment, Patrick. I’d wish you good fortune on your renewed journey, but looking at your blog I see that you’re motor is running high. So, I wish you continued access to good fuel sources.

      The idea of how to define yourself is intriguing. I’m having an interesting conversation with a new friend — a neuroscience researcher — about how he defines God. The core of any strong faith is a metaphor that resonates: modern religion has used metaphors for God that replicate and enhance the individual. But science shows us that we are all deeply connected in our essential design, and that as organisms our interconnectedness has the power to create new things. So, given what we know about science, I’ve asked, what is an appropriate metaphor for God? It’s more like a swarm of bees than a single person!

      What is the right metaphor to help us understand our creative self? Being a writer doesn’t seem to get to the center — you make that point in your own blog, that you’ve written a ton, but that you haven’t necessarily plumbed your creative core. Modern culture doesn’t have a lot of space for people who want to make things. People with strong passions are often marginalized.

      What do you think the right metaphors are to help people describe their creative identity, and the way that they manifest it?

      • Patrick Ross
        Twitter: patrickrwrites
        March 30, 2011 | 8:31 AM

        Boy oh boy, I don’t know that I have the perfect metaphor, but in some respects finding that metaphor is part of the search I’m on.

        I do know that the muse (which I just wrote about) has been cited in many cultures, an odd pairing of a creative force that is outside a creative but can be invited within. Julia Cameron and other authors have focused on this in modern times, but you can go back to when the word first came into use with the ancient Greeks, and find evidence of the concept long before that. So a metaphor that captures that duality — and that acceptance of joining — would be appropriate.

        As to your bee metaphor, time to dig out Aquinas and Moore! 🙂 There does appear to be intellectual overlap between faith and creativity. Both require belief in a force larger than oneself. Both require a recognition of one’s interconnection with a larger community. But both require certain obligations and behaviors from that individual, to honor that community and that larger force.

        It’s too early in the morning for this! 🙂

        • Patrick Ross
          Twitter: patrickrwrites
          March 30, 2011 | 8:32 AM

          Apologies to Sir Thomas, I see post-posting that I misspelled his name!

  8. Lois
    March 30, 2011 | 12:02 PM

    I’m so glad to know that I’m not the only one to experience that little voice telling me that my story is stupid, or that no one wants to read it. Of course, I don’t let that voice stop me. I keep writing just to spite it. 🙂

    And my favorite reason for writing: it’s fun! 😀

    Thanks for the words of encouragement!

    Lois

    • JW Rogers
      March 30, 2011 | 1:24 PM

      Lois,

      Spite is a good motivator. I need to tap into that more.

      Thanks for the comment.

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