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  • Letter to an Apprentice
  • David Gessner

I am writing to you at the beginning of something. As one who has been through many beginnings, some more successful than others, I can confirm something you may be starting to suspect: there is nothing harder than beginning. The problems that come later, the loss of energy and direction, the potential for bitterness, the sense of time running out and time already squandered, are very real problems, but I believe they pale next to what you are feeling now. Beginning is a time with no maps, where meaning and shapes shift, and habits—those dear, reliable, necessary things—have not yet hardened, and the smallest questions—How much caffeine to drink? What kind of chair to use? What hours of day to work?—have not yet been answered. Beginning is a time when one’s imagination is unruly and hyperkinetic, as if every hour were an insomniac midnight hour, where phantoms have not yet been revealed as what they are. Beginning is a time with no foundation, because the very task you are involved in is the laying down of rocks below your feet. And without those rocks the ground is both slippery and insubstantial, a quicksand of changing muck ready to pull you down.

If those words sound dramatic, then they fit the experience. The terror of any real artist’s life is the same as the joy: the territory where you are heading is uncharted. Think of that: when a person goes to med school they know that, however brutal, all-consuming, and occasionally demeaning the process may be, they will, if they don’t quit, end up a doctor. A would-be writer has no such guarantee. In recent years, more and more of us have chosen to go to writing school, but school is only a small part of a writer’s education. The real education will come in the wrestling match, different in each of us, between you and the page, the sometimes torturous and occasionally tortured effort to make sentences, to turn those sentences into paragraphs, and, with some luck, turn those paragraphs into essays, stories, poems, chapters, and books. And that will only be the start of it. There will also be the more than slightly daunting task of having a life and making a living, and doing so on fumes while you focus most of your real energy, your best energy, on this obsessive wrestling match with words.

If you are like most writers, part of you will long for a monklike life, while [End Page 9] part of you will want anything but. That is because the work itself, while absorbing and joyous and wild, is always arduous, always difficult, always pressing. It’s no wonder young writers are constantly threatening to quit writing and run away to start a so-called normal career. It is that instinct to flee from what is hard and uncertain that is currently sending so many college graduates with writerly ambitions directly into graduate programs in writing. They seek protection, solace, a type of work—schoolwork! homework! grades!—that the world, and parents, understand. Since I teach at one of these programs, this is a good thing for me from a practical standpoint, but I am not sure it is always such a good thing for young writers. Let me stress that I believe there is much that is beneficial, healthy, and useful in these programs (more on this to come), and that I am also retrospectively envious of the mentoring they offer—just the sort of mentoring I wish I’d had. But while I think these programs are ultimately beneficial, they work best when they are returned to after some strenuous solitary effort. With a few exceptions, my advice is this: Hold off on school. Sure, go back, but wait a while first. Remember that there is something worthwhile about working without a net. Something worthwhile about being tested and seeing how you fare.

Granted, this might just be rationalizing on my part, since I never intended to return to school myself and did not in fact return until I was thirty, and I hope this...


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