William Maxwell treats his personal material as if it were history. It is one part memory, one part research and one part hearsay but one hundred percent compassion. Compassion in my mind is an admixture of feeling and sustained attention with regard to others. Compassion is the absence of cruelty. Compassion is steady and relaxed—allowing patience where we may not have any for ourselves. Compassion is acceptance of what you didn’t realize or can’t understand. Compassion is not attainable without process—going through the various methods of drafting. Each one provides you with another perspective, another point of focus. Each method provides more ingredients to the approach that helps the content to stand on its own so that the writer can leave it behind them.
Most Wednesday nights I’m at the kitchen table staring into my laptop screen at a living room full of women. It’s my writing group, which is presided over by Nancy Beckett, an incredible playwright and writing teacher in Chicago. My admiration for her insight, depth, and crazy, mordant Irish wit never evaporates.
Everyone else assembles in her apartment for our three-hour sessions; I Skype in from St. Paul.
This week we read an excerpt from the great editor and writer William Maxwell’s creative nonfiction, and, as is the drill each week, Nancy gave us her deeply insightful lesson, a portion of which I cite above.
What I love about this work is that it goes past how to string sentences together, though there is that. It reminds me why I write. As Nancy would say, “People write because they can’t help themselves.” I write in order to know. I write in order to be changed.
(photo above: Tina, one of the group members, reads from her novel-in-progress.)