8-22-12: Becoming a Writer

Recently, someone asked me how to become a writer. The question caught me offguard and left me feeling oddly puzzled. I did ask if the questioner knew what he wanted to write, and he told me he had tons of ideas for young adult fiction and that his main problem was finding the time and, I think, focus to actually write. In the moment, all I could suggest was that he stop by this site and take a look at some of the Interview questions in On the Process of Writing and On Being a Writer, but that seemed like a pretty inadequate response. I’m going to try to make up for that now by answering with more specifics—a few strategies and, probably more important, some ideas about what being a writer actually means.

I’ll start with the mythology of being a writer. People often think it’s a glamorous occupation. It may have been for someone like, say, a Truman Capote who was very famous and successful, particularly in relation to his relatively small body of work. Certainly Hemingway and Fitzgerald were known as much for their lives as their work. It was a different era, though. Fame eludes almost all writers of literary fiction now except for those at the pinnacle of the profession such as Nobel Prize winners. Even then, the attention is limited. A Hollywood startlet is much more in the public eye than someone like Toni Morrison. While popular writers are generally better known and seem to have a more consistent presence—J. D. Rowling is a good example—it’s a pretty rare writer who becomes a well-paid celebrity. Basically, being a writer just isn’t a surefire career path for someone who craves being noticed.

Because of that—and this is a good thing—there’s no real reason to write unless it’s who you are and unless it’s essentially a compulsion for you–something you love doing and can’t get along without. That may make it sound as if someone who wants to write but isn’t writing yet is automatically eliminated as a prospect, but I don’t think that’s the case. It can take a long time to gather yourself as a writer—time to read widely and with particular attention to how good writers write, time to gain life experience and a sense of the stories you want to tell.

Those things are the prep work for a writer, but the real way to learn to write is by writing. I think this is something many readers and would-be writers are not particularly aware of. The stories you read haven’t really existed until created by the experience of writing. Paulette Bates Alden alludes to this when she says that the detail that creates story “happens not in memory or imagination (though it may begin there) but in the act of writing itself.” This is a great truth. Words and images are themselves what generate the presence of story. Writers don’t simply copy ideas from their heads. Rather, words that depict concrete detail suggest other words that build on each other to create the story’s presence.

Here’s an example. In a recent blog post on travel, I included the story of my grandfather returning home from a naval base with my uncle’s body. When I first worked on the post, I wrote just the facts of what happened but realized what I’d put down lacked immediacy and didn’t begin to convey the emotional quality of what had happened. I started again. I tried to really see my grandfather. I gave him a dark suit and the pocketwatch my nephew eventually inherited. I gave him my father’s long fingers. I both entered his imagination and described what his expression might suggest to an observer: that he’d “choked on a fishbone of air.” I stacked gesture, sensation, and action together in a way that had not existed in the anecdote I’d learned from my father, letting detail generate detail, language generate language. I was writing in a focused and deeply engaged way. It is the way story comes into being. To be a writer, you must be ready for this intensity, this immersion in language as your instrument and in the experience it brings to life.

That absorption in the work of writing is not always easy to come by. When writers speak of writer’s block, they usually don’t mean that they don’t have something to write about but rather that they can’t find their way to the inspiration and fluency of thought that lets them write concretely. I can remember times when I’ve waited miserable hours at my desk before realizing that and was the word that came next, an and that opened the door on a scene full of important detail and character interaction.

Since the person who asked me how to become a writer was asking primarily how to put his ideas to work, I’ll offer suggestions that have been useful to various writers. The most common advice writers offer each other is to write every day. That’s a good enough concept though there are times when it doesn’t fit with life, times when it’s necessary to take a break from writing to recharge. But, in general, a writer should establish the habit of writing. It’s much easier than trying to convince yourself to work, and it also gives you the chance to improve as a writer from regular practice.

Another idea for writers is to read books about writing–there are many just as there are countless how-to books in other fields—or to take a creative writing course or join a writing group. You’ll learn from other writers and you’ll also have some pressure to produce work which may be the prod you’ll need. There are also retreats for writers. If you can go to one where writing is the sole purpose for being there, you’re likely to get work done that you’ll continue with when you return home.

Often writers have individual preferences in how to work that keep them from shirking. If I remember the story correctly, Dylan Thomas had his wife, Caitlin, lock him into a room where he wrote at a desk without a chair. Hemingway, who was also chairless, always tried to stop in the middle of what he was writing so he could pick up the next day knowing where he was going without having to start something entirely new. When I’m at work on a story, I always have something to write on handy when I’m not at my desk so I can jot down ideas or scraps of dialogue that come to me. Many writers keep journals and use them as the source for material or to jump start a day’s writing.

Writers also need to find the conditions in which they write best. As a writer, you can make mental notes about what stimulates you to write. What time of day works best? What place? Some writers can work in a coffee shop. Others, if they can afford it, rent an office that makes writing work they go to away from the distractions of home. I’m probably like most writers in that I have a room with a desk and computer where I do all my composition and virtually all my revision. Some writers listen to music while they work. I can’t. Long ago, I found that I need silence so I can hear the words and rhythms in my head. While music is an influence on what and how I write, I only listen to it when I’m writing if I want to describe a particular piece to incorporate into a story.

Writers may also have rituals to prime them for work. For some, that might mean going for a run before writing; others might listen to a relaxation tape or to music that can trigger a state of mind in which they’re most receptive as writers. Often writers revise the last page or pages they wrote to help lead them into a new section. I’m in that camp. Hilary Mantel, as I mentioned in my post on Bring Up the Bodies, sometimes reads poetry to reestablish the voice of what she’s working on.

This mention of voice brings me to a last and key point. It’s what you’re after in your work. When writing is going well, it’s because of that state of absorption I referred to in which the writer has found the right voice for telling a story and the words begin to come naturally. There are hiccoughs. There are ill-conceived detours. But if the voice is true, the writer can find the way back and the way forward. This is what happens when you become a writer. You achieve confidence in your writing voice, discovering a pleasure that means you are not only ready to work but eager to inhabit the worlds you create.


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