You’ve seen the memes all over the Internet, I know.
They tell you we’re a weird bunch.
Weird, unstable, emotional, eccentric, crazy even.
It’s a cultural cliché that in order to be a writer, you must be a bohemian, jobless, penniless, loner who, at times, indulges in a good-sized dose of narcissism balanced by self-deprecation. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
The thing is, that’s not exactly what it’s about. And those aren’t necessarily the characteristics that make a writer a writer. The thing is: being a writer is hard. It’s really hard. Actually, it’s really, really, really hard. Not just because the craft of writing is challenging, but because of what is required for the craft to come to fruition. Not to mention the thick skin required to withstand frequent rejection.
At the Tucson Festival of Books this year, I had the opportunity to hear Alice Hoffman speak during a Young Adult Fiction panel. Near the end of the session, a mother from the crowd stood up and asked: “What can a parent do to encourage and support their child to become a writer?” And Alice Hoffman poignantly replied to the effect of: “Don’t.”
She went on to explain that writing is not something you choose to do. It’s something that chooses you. I couldn’t agree more.
It’s a task that is met with strife, challenge, isolation, peppered with glorious bounds of joy when a project is finished, and an endless well of frustration when you just can’t seem to get that one word right. It can exist without merit, it’s not a guaranteed paycheck, and it’s time consuming.
But despite these challenges, the personal satisfaction is great. And even greater when you know that someone, somewhere has read this one thing that you wrote and it made an impact on their life.
And here’s why I think writers get a rap for being weird: Writing requires a keen sense of observation. It is a constant dance between moving within experience and being outside of it.
It requires a constant exchange of roles between I And Thou. In one moment we are immersed in the present moment, the next we are off in the mind, explaining, describing, collecting words that will become part of an array of images displayed to the world recounting and analyzing and feeling experience.
It requires that the writer is both the observer and the observed; within and without. A writer is simultaneously self (writer) and other (character); self (narrator) and other (reader); self (character) and other (character).
It asks that that the writer paint a picture without a brush. It asks that the writer become a good psychologist, in order to create believable characters.
It asks that the writer become an historian, in order to document the collective experience of which we all are a part. It asks that the writer have a keen understanding of the dynamics of power structures, for these are the workings of conflict and strife. It asks that the writer understand emotion, for without this experience falls flat.
It asks that the writer is also a composer of music—by way of words. And, most challengingly, it asks that the writer become a perfectionist lest the wrong word disrupt the reader’s experience. No pressure!
In order to do and be all of these things, a constant extraction and immersion into the world in which we live takes place. In one moment we fully experience life, and in the next moment, we are outside of it, observing its mechanisms and workings to present to those from whom we have disconnected the gift of descriptors: Here is the experience, bound within pages, smudged with fingerprints.
Both the extraction and immersion can be jolting experiences, especially for those who are sensitive. And most writers are sensitive folks. I liken the experience to the taking off and landing of an airplane. And in between, the anxiety, the uneasiness during the journey, and the occasional mid-air nap still occur.
The best part about it? When the writing has already chosen you, the only question to ask is: Where do you want to go?
Meme and Image Credits: Terri Main quote courtesy WordmasterCommunications.com, photo by Enrique Botta; Death to the Stock Photo; Edgar Allan Poe Quote courtesy Quozio.com; Somee Cards.