Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces
By David Biespiel
Kelson Books, 2010
From the Preface
If you only read one sentence in this book I hope it’s this one: A lot
of the time just sticking with it is what this whole business of writing,
making art, playing music, making songs, performing, and living a creative
life is all about.
I’ve been a faithful adherent to that idea for over twenty years, and
during that time one particular experience still inspires me. When I
was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in the 1990s, the social
activist and poet Adrienne Rich paid a visit to our workshop. Rich,
who had just retired from teaching literature and women’s studies at
Stanford, was famous for spending as little time as she could with the
creative writing fellows. I always admired her for that. Some of the students
were excited that she was coming that Tuesday afternoon to our
weekly workshop because they hoped she would look closely at our
poems and give advice earned from years in the vineyard. Praise from
Adrienne Rich, if it were to be given, would be high praise for sure.
A couple of us, however, weren’t much thrilled with that prospect.
Not because we didn’t admire Rich—we did. Certainly I did. But we’d
also grown weary of workshops in general. It doesn’t take long in even
a decent writing workshop for a writer to know without any doubt
what each person is going to say about a new poem or story. Any workshop
can devolve into a set piece: One person speaks about how the
writing under review made her feel, another person speaks about this
or that detail being earned or un-earned, and still another person compares
the writing to something he’s read and if the writing was more
like that it’d be great (“some three-eyed monkeys would be good on
page three!”). Was it Gertrude Stein who once said, “A workshop is a
workshop is a workshop?”
This is not to denigrate all writing workshops, of course. Some are
spectacularly inspirational. But it’s important for everyone in a workshop
to remain focused on why you’re there. To my mind, you go into
writing workshops to broaden your self-understanding of how you
work on your writing and on what you value in writing. If an individual
story or poem gets improved, that’s a bonus. A good workshop
is one that focuses on the making of writing.
That’s what I was hoping for, I think, that early spring afternoon in
1994 when Adrienne Rich returned to Stanford to meet with the Stegner
fellows. I just wanted to listen to Adrienne Rich talk. I didn’t much
care what she wanted to talk about either. I admired her because I liked
that she’d done more as a poet than only write poems. She exemplified
a literary life as a private poet whose body of poetry had evolved in
interesting ways for forty years and as public poet, a citizen-poet, who
spoke forcefully in the arena of civic engagement and political life. I
always liked that about Adrienne Rich. I liked that Rich’s great lesson
to a writer is this: writing requires solitude but life doesn’t.
Adrienne Rich is petite. She speaks with the accent from her Baltimore
childhood. She barely made it up to the edge of the round table
that we were gathered around in the Jones Room in Building 50 on
the Stanford campus. The Jones Room was a dingy lounge with overstuffed
armchairs and couches and the small, crusty seminar table. The
walls were cinder-block chic. Hanging on the walls were portraits of
members of the Jones family that had donated money to Stanford to
support creative writing lectureships and also, I guess, this charmingly
seedy room used weekly for workshops by the Stegner Fellows.
Fortunately, Rich didn’t much want to run a standard workshop at
all and quickly dispensed with the toil of it. She said she wanted to ask
us one question and let our conversation grow from there. There was
some uncomfortable shifting around in chairs from some of my fellow
students at this unexpected turn. One woman, I remember, forcefully
stuffed the copies of her poems into her bag and all but slammed her
notebook down in dismay.
“Are you in it for the long haul?” Rich asked, emphasizing the o in
I sat up in my chair, delighted. What an open-ended question, for
one thing, and a pertinent one.
Certainly I’d known it before Adrienne Rich showed up that day,
but that moment in the Jones Room at Stanford settled it for me: Workshops
are not helpful if they only pick at the cat’s whiskers of the piece
of writing on the table. Workshops also need to address large issues in
writing—whether it’s “why do you write?” or “what is the importance
of the expression ‘once upon a time?’” or “what does it mean to tell the
truth in writing?” In that tense moment at Stanford, Adrienne Rich
pressed on with more important questions: “Are you present enough
in your sense of your self as a writer and in your process of writing to
keep at it? Do you expect to evolve and even reject your past accomplishments,
even the method that you’ve used to write? Is a life as a
writer worth it?” And: “What skills do you need to write throughout your life?”
Now that’s a workshop!
My general answer to Rich’s questions is one I more or less borow
from Joseph Campbell’s definition of the hero. In this case the hero is
the writer who receives a call out of the ordinary world. Reluctant at
first, the writer receives encouragement and crosses the threshold into
the fullness of the imagination where the writer encounters tests, assistants,
and challenges. At the inmost portions of the cave of the writer’s
imagination, the writer endures a variety of ordeals, then seizes on that
experience and pursues transformation of the experience by writing.
Finally, the writer returns to the ordinary world with the treasure—a
poem, a story, an essay, a novel. Every writer enters this heroic myth at
the beginning of every creative endeavor.
That’s my general answer. My specific answer also comes from
Campbell’s famous take on the hero—that a hero has a thousand faces
because every human being must reenact the hero’s journey. Every
writer has a thousand faces, too. Every poem, story, painting, or choreography
is an occasion to don those thousand faces through the process
of making one version after another of the singular piece of art at
That’s a little vague, I know. There’ll be more on that as I continue.
But for now I want only to say that to be a creative person is one of the
ongoing heroic acts of your life. And the journey to becoming a writer
is worth every step. One question every writer has is this: How do I stay
on the journey consistently?
This book is my take on how you might do just that.