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What’s A Writer’s Sacred Duty?

By: jwalsh

In 1988, I took a creative writing college course. During the opening moments of the first session, the professor rushed in the room and asked right off, “What is the writer’s sacred duty?” It seemed urgent that he find out whether or not we knew.

He peered at a few students in the front.

“Write every day,” somebody said.

“Nope. Next …?”

“Submit our stories for publication … and don’t give up,” a guy in front of me said.

“No, but that’s a good idea. Anyone else?” Our professor sighed. He pointed to a woman in the back row.

She winced, as if worried that she, too, would be wrong. “Be in a writer’s group, you know … to get feedback?”

“Well, that’s another worthy goal, but not the one I’m looking for.”


“What about this …?” he said. “Read! Reading is the writer’s sacred duty. And deep down you knew that, right?”

“Oh,” a collective groan filled the classroom. Of course. The obvious, the simple, the basis for all writing was right under our noses. We knew it to be true. Reading made us fall in love with writing to begin with, right?

That classroom scene plays itself like a movie in my mind at most every writers’ meeting. I like asking people what they’re reading, not what they’re writing. The answer usually tells me something interesting about the writer.

P. S. In case you’re wondering, the scene above is a reconstruction from memory, not a verbatim record from notes.

Dillard on reading and writing

From Annie Dillard in The Writing Life (1989):

“The writer studies literature, not the world. He lives in the world; he cannot miss it. If he has ever bought a hamburger, or taken a commercial airplane flight, he spares his readers a report of his experience [unless he is a travel writer]. He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.” (pg. 68).

What’s on your bookshelf?

For the past couple of years, I’ve been in a book club. For me, it fills the need, in part, for a sense of community, besides fulfilling my sacred duty, perhaps like going to a church does for other people. We’ve read fiction and non-fiction stories. We’ve discussed the stories, their merits, their weaknesses, whether or not they were “well written,” and in between snacks and/or glasses of wine, we’ve bantered about in the experience of reading the book as if splashing in the deep end at a pool party. Then we argue, in the friendliest of ways, about which book to read next.

Not everyone in the club is a writer. But we all love to read. Do you?

For the summer, our club is in suspended animation, but I’m pushing on. A friend suggested A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, author of the New York Times bestseller, Rules of Civility (which I have not read … yet). This friend is a writer and reporter and loves sentences as much or more than I do. She said I’d love Towles’s writing, and I do. The story takes us to another country and another time.

From the inside flap: “When, in 1922, the thirty-year-old Count [Alexander Rostov] is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. An indomitable man of erudition and wit, Rostov must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors.”

This is a big, take-over-your-life-for-a-couple-of-months book. Perfect for this summer.

What’s on your summer reading list?

Happy adventures on the page and in the mind.

This Friday, look for another installment of my nerdy blog post experiment called Fundamentalist Friday.

Your writer on the wing,






Imagine this: In 2009, Hoyt and I were in Bali, Indonesia for two months. Yeah, I know, a tough job but someone had to do it.



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4 Responses

  1. Linda Goddard
    | Reply

    Thank you, Charlene, for this book suggestion! I will see if the library has it.

    I just finished The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah. I do highly recommend this book. The setting is France during the Nazi occupation and centers around the lives of two sisters abandoned by their father when he returned from WWI, and even more so after their mother died, which happened before WWII. This novel recounts in poignant detail all that these girls had to endure to survive during those Nazi occupied years in France. I sobbed at the end of this book.

  2. Robyn
    | Reply

    Having just been in Moscow, I’ll be interested in reading the Towles book. Fiction, right?
    I’ve been reading Russian stuff and wouldn’t recommend it, especially for summer. One book I read recently and loved was Today Will be Different by Maria Semple. Laugh out loud funny and smart.

  3. Mary Taylor
    | Reply

    Dear Charlene,
    I just finished reading your book, Undertow. Wow, it was terrific. I was part of TWI back in 1971 when I took the class. I was in NY, in high school even. I knew of your ex-husband, “Ed” because we would hold Sunday night services at the Rye Prep. church. I remember his theatrical skits of the 3 Leprous men. Chris Geer ran my first class, it was a film class run in Larchmont NY. He was a terror back then and it just got worse. Wow, there were so many things that you spoke about that brought back so many memories. I was part of the Way choir when we sang at the ROA back in 1973-74. I went WOW a few times but I never quiet got the courage to go into the Way Corp. I’m so glad I didn’t. I really feel for the ones who did. I know they got hurt the most. I had a mentor who went to St Lawrence University and he encouraged me to stay in school and it helped me see how important that was for my life overall. He was a believer from my hometown and he is now a professor at Penn St University. Almost retired. I’m so thankful for his life.
    I got married in the late 1980’s, I like you got my college degree later in life. in 1995. I have two kids and I’ve been a school teacher for the past 10 years.
    After I left the ministry in 1987, it was if I had to learn how to think, talk and relate to people again. I was living in such a bubble. It was a process to keep going and though lots of friends and support groups, I’m glad I went through it.
    I’m so glad you wrote this book. My wow sister is still in the way if you can believe that. I think now she is getting out because she was part of the restoration crew that are trying to have the current way president retire. I said, good luck with that, they didn’t listen 30 years ago, what makes you think that’s going to change? Anyway I’ll see what happens in the next few months with her. I hope things will work out.
    Thanks again for your book.

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      Dear Mary, thanks so much for sharing this TWI small-world story with me and the rest of the readers here. I’m thrilled you were able to leave TWI behind and create a better life!
      Our society sure needs good teachers. Keep up the great work!
      All my best,

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