What I Want You To Do Now

Years ago, departing the last day of my “Creative Writing” class, one of my students said in a tone partly of wonder and partly of fear, “Well, what do we do now?”

Again today, and as I have in the many semesters since, for the last meeting of the semester, I made the following remarks to encourage and wish my students the best of luck in their future writing endeavors. Here is exactly what I want you to do now:

Get over it. Now, you and I are in the same boat: we’ve all been told we’re not as good as we think we are or as we could or want to be, and it’s true. Our high opinions of ourselves should be recognized for what they are: hope and self-importance. We need both, just as we need paddles and strength for our canoes, but neither one is enough to cross the water. Paddles break, split, or are lost; strength burns away with the days. Get over yourself and your disappointment by setting the blade in the waves. E hoe i ka hālāwai. Paddle for the horizon.

Meet the challenge. Writing is the only pursuit within which you can improve your work constantly as you get older. Athletes peak and must retire; writers don’t. If you pay attention to what you’re doing and recognize that each and every new work is a new and unique challenge requiring different and inventive risks, techniques, and strategies, then you will continue to hone your skills till the day you finally put down the pen forever. E kūlia i nā hōkū. Strive for the stars.

Understand that people you don’t like may know more about you and be more useful than your friends. Friends are great; get some, but don’t trust them alone concerning your work. In fact, your teachers and other enemies are the most useful people you will ever meet. All of them show you where you’re weak, where you need improvement, where you haven’t met the challenge. All of them show you what you need to do next, what you need to consider, what you need to know, where you need to go. E a‘o mai no nā mea a pau. Learn from everyone.

Increase your learning, knowledge, and wisdom. Read. Read. Read. Never stop reading, thinking, discussing, and evaluating literature. What you know, know well. Examine everything from every angle. Gather all of the arguments; weigh their significance. Know why you accept what you accept and why you reject what you reject. E mahi i kau ‘ike. Cultivate your knowledge.

Appreciate the truth. Savor, revel, and wallow in the truth. Taste the bitter, the sour, the sweet, and the salt of what’s true. Hear the clang and chime, the blare and brass, the trill and the screech. Smell the stench and perfume. Feel the soft, stubborn, greasy weight on your fingers and on your tongue and swallow. Examine the ugly beauty; then, step back and see how perfect and permanent and transient and terrible is the truth. Tell the truth you know, but take no joy in the easy or the hard parts. Be accurate. E ‘ōlelo i ka oia‘i‘o. Speak the truth.

Recognize the difference between jobs and work. A job is done for money. Work is done for fulfillment. Jobs tire you out. Work builds you up. Few love their jobs, but all love their work. No one does a job without pay; everybody works for free. Jobs are what we do. Work is what we are, and to be and to become ourselves, we must do the work. E kākau i ka lā a pau. Write every day.

Remember the work is its own reward. Just the fact that you have the freedom and opportunity to write is the true and only reward in writing, and that is reward enough. In fact, that reward may be all you get. That you also have the energy and time to write well is a miracle. Be grateful; even that little extra is gravy. Should you receive further rewards, like admiration, prizes, honors, awards, money, respect, and recognition, that is the icing on the gravy, which is as rich and repulsive as it sounds. Covered with gravy and icing, you’re already far beyond the best part: the writing. The writing is the first and best reward. Always return to the writing. E nānā i ke kumu; e ho‘i i ke kākau. Look to the source; return to the writing.

Eric Shaffer