Red Wheelbarrow Writer Nancy Adair shares her notes from the David Guterson talk at WWU on February 21.

Why write? Are art and imagination worthwhile? Does poetry do society any good?

David Guterson has been writing for thirty years—he’d been writing for seventeen when Snow Falling on Cedars was published—but he still struggles with these questions as he tries to justify his life as an author. In his workshop for fellow writers last Thursday at WWU, he offered several answers to the above questions.

  1. He writes because he is driven, he has a compulsion. But in his mind, writing just to answer the call is not enough to justify a career of it.
  2. Some writers claim to be entertainers, purveyors of delight, participating in one of the oldest professions in the world. But is that enough of a social justification?
  3. One audience member offered the justification that reading is an escape. It helps people de-stress. Guterson replied that if that were the sole purpose, he would have become a masseur.
  4. Some writers feel they are whistling in the dark against the darkness, and writing gives them a connection to God.
  5. Tolstoy said art’s purpose is to “transfer emotion from one person to another.”
  6. Another writer said that art’s purpose is to deal with human loneliness. Writing connects humans and therefore mitigates loneliness. “Does it?” Guterson asked and then explained that we have to differentiate between solitude and loneliness.
  7. Mary Gordon’s Moral Fiction said that the novel is uniquely qualified to “tell the truth that sets us free—to be more moral, courageous and compassionate.” Story tellers ask the unanswerable questions and make us think. Some things cannot be known without careful pondering.

Guterson showed us that a lot of writers philosophize and fret over their own value. He said he subscribes to the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious. Writers are subject to “things beyond our control.” The words come from somewhere else—from the muse, perhaps—and writers are vessels who are called to transcribe the message.

For him, his career is justified when his writing has a social purpose. But, he warns, one should never begin a story with a social agenda. Though he did admit that Snow Falling began with a desire to expose a seldom examined social injustice in history. Yet, he emphasized, one should begin by focusing on the people—“spend time sketching your characters, getting into their hearts and minds, knowing what makes them human and what makes them different from you, the writer.” Be as true to the characters as possible. If writers honor the craft, then the social message will emerge organically.

And what does it mean to be true? He went round the urn a few times with “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but he ended up at the Red Wheelbarrow.  “Truth is the red wheelbarrow, itself. This is the manifesto of imagism. It means, ‘don’t give me a metaphor,’ give me the real thing.”

An audience member asked if that meant avoiding adjectives. “Yes,” he chuckled. Then he explained it deeper by reciting some haiku, capturing a true image at a moment in time. “Poetry,” he said, “is a way of putting yourself aside and letting the true thing emerge.”  As Dickinson wrote, “I’m nobody. Who are you?”

In the end, David Guterson believes that his writing must have a social justification, and that will happen only if he gets as close to the truth as possible.