Although explicitly stating that the main idea of her book, A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write, is why write, really Melissa Pritchard is modeling for aspiring and current writers what to write. Because although she concedes that the desire to write stories that are entertainment is legitimate, she herself has undergone a change, and now, with so many troubles, injustices, in the world, she is challenging writers to go beyond mere storytelling. Which made me a little uncomfortable, at least at first: “I’ve been moving towards the concept of literature as a sacred vocation, toward Yeats’ concept of artists as priests, as shamans, as soul transformers,” Pritchard writes, “in the category of holy persons, language saints.”
Any time anyone starts proclaiming herself a holy person, I get a little uncomfortable, and I can tell even Pritchard feels a little uncomfortable with what she’s saying, by including the phrase “I’ve been moving towards” like she doesn’t entirely want to do a full Walt Whitman or William Blake. Nor do I think it healthy to tell other people, especially young writers somehow, that they’re super-special shamans. Writers don’t need any encouragement to make them feel better (and more privileged?) than other people.
And yet, to be a writer does seem to set oneself up at a distance from others. Not above them, but apart, as observers. And too, Pritchard’s argument for what writers do isn’t, perhaps, far from what I think. Not that our writing is “a form of prayer” or “sacrament” and not even as “the heart and soul of your time,” but perhaps maybe “to reconcile humanity to itself and to reconnect, through language, humankind to the universe.” In this last quote I sense Pritchard moving toward Heidegger’s idea of art, especially the language arts and especially poetry, as being on the edge of Being, as the way we become (continuously) human. Which I know starts to sound like we’re a bunch of shamans, so I may just be disagreeing on terminology.
More concretely, Pritchard offers, in her essay/chapter “Spirit and Vision” (from which all the previous quotes come) the not-new concept that writers should be witnesses, to injustice basically, though then to write about it, to challenge it, to let other people know about it. She laments (and I do too) the kind of ‘safe’ writing (and reading) that goes on in America, when people even read anymore, the kind that is merely privileged entertainment, whereas meanwhile in other parts of the world, writers can still be, and are, killed for what they write. Pritchard wants writing, hers, her students’, yours and mine, to be that dangerous. Or, as she says later in “Time and Biology”:
….not dissident art I advocate for so much as moving beyond even that, into an awareness of the solitary act of writing as being a profound social act, the social act as being political, the political as being indistinguishable from the ethical, and the ethical as being inextricably linked to the spiritual.
On that vital note, Pritchard offers a writing tip/exercise/life lesson, a variation on the ‘if you only had one year to live, what would you do?’ Rather, for us writers: “If you only had three months to live, what story would you write?” That said, I was a little disappointed when in the first quarter of A Solemn Pleasure: what we get is an essay about dachshunds, and three essays about her time as a visiting writer in England, including both teaching a creative writing class and having a writing residency in an old English castle. My expectations were that this was a book on the writing/creative process. But these essays felt distractingly privileged. All I could think while reading them was, “Wow, must be nice. I wish I could have a full-time teaching gig at Arizona State University and have the time and money to go to England to teach a small creative writing class then hang out in London’s British Library and an old English castle!” Where’s the witnessing here? Where’s the follow up to the shamanism?
Frustrating too in that I expected, or would have liked a bit, more on Pritchard’s writing process. She shares a bit, like “On Kasper Hauser,” about how she wrote her short story “The Hauser Variations,” though some of it is hard to believe: Did she really work every day, all day, for at least three months, on one short story? Really? And though she does say she did some revision, which is important for beginning writers to realize (though again, she did it every day?) she doesn’t share what she revised, or how. I would have loved some early drafts, with things she crossed out and/or added, anything. Instead, the end of the essay has her almost bragging that she left England with a finished draft, sent the story off to CONJUNCTIONS, and they accepted it in five days. She should be proud, I would be, but I’m not sure what lesson aspiring writers might take from the essay.
But then, then, came the powerhouse essays, where Pritchard demonstrates exactly what she means by writer as witness. These essays come from her experiences moonlighting as a journalist, in Africa and Afghanistan, and in her friendship with a Sudanese refugee, whose story she shares in “Still, God Helps You: Memories of a Sudanese Child Slave.”
And that’s just it: I think I would have just liked a ‘regular’ collection of essays. A Solemn Pleasure feels incomplete, or half-and-half: partly a call-to-arms on writing, and about the creative process, and partly just a collection of essays and journalism. I kind of feel like the shorter essays about her time in England could have been dropped, though still including “Spirit and Vision,” with more witnessing writing. Less essays spending two pages describing the rooms where she writes, and maybe less telling us what she wants writers to do, and more showing us exactly what we could be doing. Her call-to-arms would be more powerful followed immediately by examples rather than an essay on dogs.
The subtitle of Pritchard’s book, To Imagine, Witness, and Write, implies a book for aspiring writers, but as a some-time teacher of creative writing myself, I wouldn’t assign A Solemn Promise to one of my classes, at least not at the beginning levels. I would however, bring in copies of “Spirit and Vision” to read and discuss. In particular, I would ask, How might a writer of fiction also be a writer of witness? As someone known more for her fiction than her journalism (though with how well she writes, that might soon switch) that’s the essay I would have liked to read. Pritchard touches on it only slightly, though I could suggest some possible examples, like George Orwell’s 1984, or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
And/or, what was life like for Pritchard when she was an aspiring writer? What did she learn? How did she learn? From whom did she learn? How did she write her first novel, or two, while balancing (or not) life and stuff? Again, I’m torn, wanting either more on the/her writing process, or just more essays of witness. Still, there’s enough here that I felt challenged as a writer. I always encourage my writing students to take risks, and I’d like to think I do too, though this was a good reminder not to pussyfoot around. And her question still haunts: Three months to live, what would I write? What would you write?