The Making of A Writer: A Conversation is Samuel Ace
The world of academic life can, in some ways, feel a bit like being part of a machine. Often, students end up feeling put under enormous pressure to succeed, wrapping itself around each of us in its own way, demanding us to ask the dreaded question: “Am I doing enough?”
Enough of what? It is vital that we ask that question of ourselves, because inside each of us there is some creative part, a voice, that is asking us for our time. This small self often gets pushed aside–especially by students (like myself) in the sciences–as frivolous, or not worth listening to. This becomes even more vital when that voice is trying to help us understand and love our identity, both as a writer and an individual, although both processes tend not to mesh well with rigorous course loads.
We love that voice, however, and want to be able to have a conversation with it, so how do we find the time and confidence to put effort into that conversation? In pursuit of an answer to that question, I went to listen to Professor Ace’s poetry reading on February 13. Poetry, to me, is the very essence of the human mind, as it mixes together our individual identities and voices into one being that can be shared with the world. As I listened to the poems he read, I began to wonder how they were written; specifically, how Professor Ace found a way to listen to his poetic voice while also living in a world built on deadlines and external stress. Following the talk, I did what any student would do when they have questions: I asked them. I asked them not just for myself, but also for the many people on this campus that grapple with the delicate balancing act of managing school while also managing art, and I hope that the answers I received will be as meaningful to my peers as they are to me.
Q: How did you develop as an artist, and how did you manage to find ways of doing your own thing while also being in a rigorous academic environment?
“I went to liberal schools. I also played around with going on to medical school; being a biology major. I decided not to do that. The arts in my family and were always really encouraged. They weren’t seen as less, and somehow I always got the message that you’ll make your way; you’ll figure out a way to make a living…I guess I always had this faith that I would figure out a way to do that.”
Q: Do you have a sense of when or how you started writing?
“I don’t know, because I don’t particularly remember my parents reading poems to me. Maybe they did. Somehow I got in my head even at a very young age that I wanted to be a poet. I remember it was a holiday time. I grew up Jewish but we still celebrated the gift giving part of Christmas. My sister got a several volume set of books by great poets. I was so jealous. I thought; ‘That’s for me! I don’t know why she’s getting that!’ I was really jealous, and I’m not sure where all that came from, but I started writing at a very young age.”
Q: What was it about writing that inspired you?
“My mom put us all in music. I have two sisters and we were supposed to be a trio; I played the piano, my sister played the violin, my younger sister played the cello. Music was was there for me, and for some reason I really got the sound sense of language. It wasn’t that people around me particularly resonated their language with me, although my mom’s parents were immigrants, and they spoke Hungarian and Yiddish in house. And they didn’t teach it to me, but I loved sitting there listening to them.
“I remember when I was probably 11 or 12 there were a lot of books in my house. My father was a great lover of literature. I remember somehow coming across Yeats. I had no idea what he was talking about but I loved imagining what the words sounded like, and in imagining what they sounded like I would start trying to mimic him. I wish I had those pieces of writing. I don’t know what they would have been like. It was the sound of the language that first got me. So, that being said, I’ve always written and it’s always been a part of my life.
“I didn’t really start on the trajectory I’m on now, seriously studying to be a poet, until much later, actually in my mid to late 20s. I was living in New York, and there was a lot going on in my life. At the time I was coming out as queer, even though I had been out for quite a while. I think there are different levels of coming out, and I was coming out at the level of community. That’s how I can explain it. I spent hours and hours, days, in the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York just reading and finding a lineage of queer poets until I found writers who resonated with my experience. That’s not the only way to start writing, but it was essential to opening up the gates of what is possible for me. One of the things that happened was a workshop I took with Gloria Anzaldua, who was living in New York at the time. That was my first official writing workshop, and she was really my first writing teacher. I feel she set me off on a path that still hasn’t stopped.”
Q: Do you have any pieces of wisdom to help people find communities to support them, both as individuals and as writers?
“I moved to New York, and lived there at a time when it wasn’t insanely expensive to live there. I don’t think that New York is, at this point, so easy for anybody to afford. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other places that have very vibrant queer and writing communities, and often those places are in cities that are a lot cheaper to live in.
Also, find like minded people. Don’t carry a lot of ideas about what it means to be a writer, let oneself really explore. Go to readings, start a writing group, take workshops. Go to readings and find voices of people that you really love, then go up and ask them “Are you teaching somewhere?” Many people teach in colleges, but a lot of people just give workshops.”
Q: Do you have any suggestions for how new writers can gain confidence in their writing?
“Take a writing class somewhere. There are many, many more programs around now and if you have the means, go visit them. See if there are other people that are doing the kinds of work you’re really interested in and start getting together. Develop trust that if you put something out into the world, you can try to see where it lands. Someone else might hear it or see something in it that you had no idea they were looking for. I think trusting oneself and finding what’s drawing you in; what you’re attracted to.”
Q: There are a lot of creative people here, but a lot of them have insecurity about whether their writing is “good” or not. How do you overcome self-doubt in creative writing?
“There’s a few antidotes to this. One of them is reading: getting your hands deep into books that you like. I think imitation is such a wonderful way to learn about writing. Really look at a poet that really speaks to you, whether it’s the sound of the language you love, what they’re saying, or how they’re saying it. Sometimes when you read something, you say “how did they do that?” or “that was so amazing.” But every writer I know has had self-doubt. You might hear someone talk about their work and they might sound like they know everything, but you know they really don’t. I’m hoping till the end of my life that I’m teachable. I’m always finding new things and I’ve always been blown away by someone or something I read in a poem. And in some ways I think we’re in such a golden age of poetry. It’s are amazing. I mean, possibly this is the internet, but also the multitude of voices out there who are writing.”
Q: As a school, we don’t have very many writing classes. How do you recommend encouraging writing for writing’s sake on campus?
“The more you expose yourself to writers, and follow your interests the better; it just gives you more. It’s like peat moss, you know; nutrients. The whole college area has been right there, and so many writers moved through this area. There are many writers who have taught here at various points. A lot of them have been visitors. For a while I’ve had a sense that there is kind of a pent up desire in that there a lot of students and a lot of people here who would love to take a writing class. From a student point of view, talk to the deans. Or to the English department about expansion. There can be a lot of push from students to make more available.”
Q: Do you have any tips for how to cultivate a mindset that’s open to learning from both the sciences and english without comparing the two to each other?
“Take a writing class! Just because you take a writing class doesn’t mean you change your whole major; it just means you took a writing class. Who knows what that will open up in your head about what’s possible. One of the first exercises students do in my intro classes are walking exercises. I ask students to take a walk and write down every single thing they see and observe, then form it into a piece of writing. I ask them to write down everything, also what they’re feeling and what’s going on in their lives. I had one student in particular, a science major, and before she read her piece she was really apologetic, saying “oh my god you can tell I’m a science major; I have all the names of the plants.” Her piece was magnificent. It’s just beautiful. And, you know, there was everything in it from the sound of those plant names to what she was able to see, and it was just beautiful. I think it was a great lesson to the people in the classroom who thought of themselves as poets, too. It was so much more real than what we think of as poetic language; it was so poetic that it became abstract.”
Q: How have you been able to find space for your own writing while also doing other work?
“Finding a time of the day that you can come to; a place that you know. Put a boundary around that time, whether it’s 10 minutes, half an hour, or an hour. That’s the place you come every day to write. When I had one of my most intensive, time consuming jobs I would get up at 5:00 in the morning and make sure that I took the time to be there with my work. I’ve written a couple of books while I had those kinds of jobs. So it’s always possible; it’s just a priority to make that time. I teach in my intro class. There was a handbook of poetry that Mary Oliver wrote and she talks about how if we habitually, even if we sit there and nothing comes out, take a time during the day our subconscious will be waiting for us there, and that’s really important. If you don’t show up at that time or that place, that ongoing creative part of us just says ‘OK we’re not interested.’”
Q: How do you recommend that students find a voice of their own in writing?
“I carried this around for way too long: the idea that we write in isolation. We’re all in collaboration. We’re in a community with each other; think about who you want to be talking to, who you’re around when you’re writing, who’s your ideal audience, who’s listening. And imitate what you admire; finding someone from 200 years ago, or someone who you heard reading on YouTube. I think we learn about our own voices by what’s resonating with us. Why should we ignore that attraction? Why shouldn’t we learn from that? Many poets I know who are published say ‘this poem is written after this person gave me a prompt,’ or ‘this poem is in response to what I heard.’ Sometimes it’s very direct and sometimes it may not be. I tell my students, and I tell the same thing to myself, that if you’re writing in imitation of something, you can say that. If you look at the back of a poem or the back of books sometimes there’ll be notes. The author will say ‘this was after such and such I read,’ and at times you can hear those resonances; you can hear that conversation. What an amazing thing. We’re not in this alone. We’re in a community, and we’re in a world that needs more of that. I think the idea of the lone artist is just this myth of individualism that is so rampant in our capitalist society.
“But that fountain we have to draw on; our language learning; how we heard language when we were kids; your experience with language is going to be very different. There may be crossovers which can be very different from anyone else you know. And you have that to bring. You will find that it will be authentic to you.”
Following my talk with Professor Ace, I attended a few of the readings at Amherst College’s Lit Fest, keeping in mind what he told me about finding works that resonate with my own self and my writing. In seeing and hearing these writers talk about their lives and their work, I found truth in what he told me. Each of us has our own unique set of life experiences, and our own way of seeing the world. The sentence I read will be different than the sentence my friends might read, and that is a beautiful thing. Fearing that your work may not measure up to the work of someone else should never stand between you and your creativity, because writing is a constant exercise in growth and collaboration. Make time for yourself; let yourself write. Even better, share your work with your friends or with a college journal, because your work matters and is worthy of being seen. Read what you love, and who you love, and let them shape your work without worrying that you won’t be unique. It really is like Professor Ace says: “When you see a poet that reaches out and has a logic to their dream or their poem that really speaks to you, gives you permission to do the same thing, yours is going to end up in a very different place. Always. It will be, because it’s you.”