An Unnatural Act

Poet Mary Ruefle recently said the following:

Writing is a very, very unnatural act. Most people are out living—their bodies are, they’re walking and they’re talking and they’re working and playing and they’re interacting. Writing’s very unnatural because you are not living when you write. But at the same time, what a great paradox—because you’re all writers so you all know. You’re all going, Oh but no, no, I’m most alive when I write. So you are more living or less, we can’t use “more” or “less,” it’s just different. And this is the crux of any writer’s life. It is the essential paradox and question and torment and joy. Are you writing or living and what’s the difference and where’s the line and how do we divide those activities? …

I’ve spent my whole life thinking, Is this unnatural? Shouldn’t someone be parading outside my apartment with a cardboard placard saying, “Insanity’s taking place on the inside”? They really should, there’d be a point to it. And then, in other moods, I go, No, no, no, the insanity’s taking place out there. And I waffle back and forth. And this waffling back and forth, when you yourself experience it, it’s called life. And you are going to experience this waffling back and forth for the rest of your life. And whenever you do, don’t think you’re unnatural or broken or different. It’s life, and we’re living it, and that tension is life.

—Mary Ruefle, in conversation with Alice Quinn at the NYU Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, September 6, 2012. (Podcast)

How do you handle that “unnatural” tension in your own life?

I know that almost daily I find myself in conversation with family or friends or my children, and my mind drifts to the characters living in my mind and the journeys that they are taking and that often feels more real to me than the conversation happening right in front of me. Sometimes I fight this tendency, other times I give in. I haven’t figured out how to manage this balance between my inner and outer lives. At times I’m not even sure if I need to find balance, or if I can just keep on going as I am without guilt or shame. What helps the most is knowing that there are communities of other people out there who feel the same way I do and live in this same strange writer-realm that I inhabit. Because there is nothing unnatural about community. In fact, it might be the most natural thing of all.

Share your own thoughts on the subject in the comments.

By Jocelyn Nash Carlin


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Information for the beginning or aspiring writer about all things writing in the fiction world. Novels, publishing, etc. We feature author and other professional interviews. View all posts by Writing Snippets

2 responses to “An Unnatural Act

  • anonymous

    I do the same thing. My mind wanders to my story during conversations or classes or meetings. then when I’m alone and try to think about my story I can’t always do it. I have to just let it come when it does, but it’s not always convenient and sometimes I need to focus on something else. It’s hard finding that balance.

  • Mark L Forman

    Go ahead and zone to your story. You’re a writer and people kind of expect that. Family, no kids, parents, brothers, sisters, ect. don’t get it, so you can’t zone out with them, at least not so much. Always keep something to write with and on close at hand, a few quickly written words might help you recall that impressive scene that you couldn’t zone to because the stuff burning on the stove was making things inconvenient.

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