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On Suffering

The Kenyon Review Credos

The bulk of my adult life has been spent as a student or teacher of fiction writing. I often filled my days thinking on how to explain to my students the intricacies of the art and craft of story. Every discussion revolved around “quality” in literature. I developed eighteen lectures on the finer points of quality. I wrote up twenty-seven tips for writing quality fiction. My teachings evolved into a four-hour multi-media lecture I’d give at the beginning of each semester, which, with great swagger, I titled, “Five Things You Absolutely Positively Must Do to Write a Great Story.”

I want to be clear that I’m not denouncing anything I’ve done, or that I regret a single moment spent in the classroom. The belief system by which I now work is built from what I learned as student and professor. In fact, I may someday return to teaching. That said, it’s now been a little over a year that I’ve not taught, that I’ve done nothing but write, and my perspective has greatly shifted.

The main thing that happened once I stopped teaching was that I stopped thinking of ways to articulate what I already knew about craft, and began to consider why I was a writer at all. What value did writing have in my life? What value was my writing to the world?

Almost immediately, I began trying to track my way back to some sort of beginning. At some point a switch had been thrown, and stories began to hold significance in my life. The truth is that as a boy I didn’t openly embrace books. I grew up in a tough working-class neighborhood, and books were seen as quiet and solitary and weak, only handled by kids who sat by themselves during recess and had no friends. On the other hand, although I was seen as gregarious and confident, I was really full of anger and fear, self-doubt and longing. This prompted me to publicly shun books while privately cherishing them.

I remember crying while reading Charlotte’s Web, remember being haunted by Jack London’s “To Build A Fire,” terrified by Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. My father had a number of novels by Raymond Chandler, which I read cover to cover in absolute secrecy. My brother had a book about mythology, which I snuck from his room, again and again, to read a passage about an infant Hercules strangling serpents.

I never spoke to anyone about my love of stories. Years later, my parents would be surprised when I told them I wanted to be a writer. Why did I keep this to myself? I kept it to myself because books didn’t live quietly or peacefully inside of me, but instead filled me with a kind of shrieking truth. Books felt unsettling and dangerous, and affected me more deeply than just about any other experiences I’d had. I felt like a freak. I thought nobody’d understand. I imagined I’d be scolded: Get your nose out of those books and go live!

What I didn’t have the capacity to articulate as a boy was that these stories allowed me see myself, see my anger and fear, my self-doubt and longing, my loves and hopes and hatreds, though all in a way that was bearable. I won’t bother with the specifics of my own life that might better explain this need for stories. I’ll only say that I carried stories with me throughout my days. Books influenced not just the worlds in my imagination, but the real world, which I found scary and confounding. Stories bolstered me, tempered me, humbled me.

Not long ago I went to a writing conference and there were lectures on point of view, how to write an ending, the art of suspense, lectures on minimalism and magical realism, on the use of research in building a historical novel. Sitting there listening to talk after talk I began to realize that though I understood the attraction of such discussions, none of it mattered to me any more.

In fact, the answer to my questions was all that mattered. I’d refined myself down to the barest of answers, an answer I now claim only for myself, one that I wouldn’t impose on others though I think it’s the highest truth of art. Why do I write? What value does writing have in my life? What value does my writing have in the world? I write because I’m suffering, and the world is suffering, too, and I believe a great story, well written, can help as much as anything. All my thoughts on “quality,” everything I’ve ever learned or taught, I now funnel into my desire to expose and lessen suffering through story.


More about The Kenyon Review Credos
In the early 1950s John Crowe Ransom, founding editor of The Kenyon Review, invited some of the most celebrated public intellectuals of the day, among them Northrop Frye, William Empson, and Leslie Fielder, to offer their personal credos on their professional philosophies and aspirations. (These essays, still fascinating, will be reprised on the KR website throughout 2014.) In marking The Kenyon Review’s 75th anniversary, sixteen poets, essayists, and fiction writers, authors who have published in our pages on our website from early in their careers, will present their own contemporary credos. Four will appear in the print journal and twelve in KROnline. —D.H.L.

Alan Heathcock’s VOLT was a “Best Book” selection from numerous newspapers and magazines, including GQ, Publishers Weekly, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, was named as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, selected as a Barnes and Noble Best Book of the Month, as well as a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Prize. Heathcock has won a Whiting Award, the GLCA New Writers Award, a National Magazine Award, has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Lannan Foundation, and the Idaho Commission on the Arts. A native of Chicago, he lives and works in Boise, Idaho.