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Photo: Susan Hillyard



Whatever our medium, discipline, or training, imaginative work rests on practice, skill, freedom, and openness. It rests on training and knowledge. It rests on countless mistakes and failures. We learn by doing, meaning by trial and error, what each project needs, and how to supply that.


We and our work engage in conversation. Our ability to attend to and answer the work draws upon our background, our education, and even our earlier work, but they are just where we start. We don't always know what we're doing, or even what to do, but we continue listening, answering, and above all, working.


Writers have this conversation not only at our desks but everywhere. We observe and remember. We take note, and take notes. Each of us tries, as Henry James urged, to be someone on whom nothing is lost. Our notebook is the palm of the hand, an index card, a looseleaf pad, a binder crammed with facts, figures, and quotations. It's a phone, an envelope's back, a receipt, a book's margin, a magazine's torn-out page. These fragments—facts, thoughts, words, conclusions, overheard dialogue, faces, bodies, attitudes, incidents, and of course, history—starch up and suffuse fiction. 

Every writer published has struggled, failed, persisted, and at least partly succeeded in undertaking this conversation, one that's different with every piece. The process, however, is the same in one way: to gather what we need, we must set aside pride, wilfulness, the need to know and be in charge, and the wish to dominate the work (or, sometimes, the world). When we shed those handicaps, the world the work needs is easier to build.


The finished piece that results from serving the work is the signature of that interchange, the spark that we welcome and make real.


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