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Thoughts on Writing

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What is a writer?

Well, the simple answer is, a writer is someone who writes. Easy enough to explain something by citing its definition. Bricklayers lay brick, dancers dance, musicians make music, and writers write. Simple.

But why do writers write?

The answer to that question is a bit more complex. It is, as they say, a whole other ball o’ wax. The reasons people choose to write are as varied as the writers themselves. I could list all the reasons for writing by it would take up more time that I’m prepared to spend on this post. For those interested in exploring the topic, l suggest you pick up a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With the Dead, A Writer on Writing. She offers an extensive, although by no means comprehensive, list of reasons why writers write; some of them surprising, others not so much. One reason that appears elsewhere in Ms. Atwood’s book, although not among the listed reasons for writing, is that it’s a comparatively easy thing to do. There are no prerequisites; no intellectual or educational background is required beyond a certain facility with one’s native language. That, and the determination to see the process through from beginning to end. After all, it is, as Neil Gaiman is supposed to have said, simply a matter of putting one word after another on the page until you’ve finished saying whatever it is you want to say. Simple, right? Not really.

There’s a small addendum to Mr. Gaiman’s description that’s worth noting if one aspires to be a published writer. (Not all of us aspire to that lofty goal, but I’ll get to that in a bit). The addendum is, that along with putting one word after another on the page, a should be able to put the right word in the right order after another on the page. Makes this ‘writing thing’ a bit trickier, don’t you think?

Ernest Hemingway once described the act of writing as, “You just sit down and open a vein.” Ironic, considering Hemingway did a lot of his writing standing up. I’ll confess that Hemingway’s description is a bit more strenuous the Mr. Gaiman’s, and anyway most writers – not all, but the majority – manage to confine their bloodletting to the page. Suffice it to say the actual process of writing lies somewhere between the two extremes. I, myself, picked writing because it was one of the few things I was suited to that didn’t require an inordinate amount of time trying to dislodge the dirt from under my fingernails.

So, what’s it like, being a writer?

For the most part writers live pretty much to way everyone else does. Most of us have ‘day jobs’. We get up, get the kids ready for school, go to work, attend PTA meetings, grocery shop, pick the kids up after school, get the car washed, the tires rotated, go to the barber or the hairdresser, maybe go on vacation when we can afford it. Pretty much the same thing everyone else does, except when all the other stuff is done, we write; usually late at night or early in the morning, and sometimes on the weekends if there are no soccer, baseball or football games, or piano or ballet recitals to attend. We’re just like everyone else. We’re kind of like witches in that respect; you can’t tell just by looking whether we are one or not.

Writers also tend to be avid readers, and we read across a wide variety of subjects and genres. I’ll give you an example. My own small library contains books on history, biography, memoirs, religion, business, art, writing, cooking, science and politics. I have thrillers, literary fiction, classics, philosophy, occultism, humor. books on photography and crafts, wine and winemaking, books and book collecting. And these, in one way or another, inform my own writing, as well as the way I tend to see the world around me. By reading how others viewed their world, I gain insights into my own world, and how it came to be the way it is. It’s also a handy how-to for using words, a turn-of-phrase that, with practice, helps me improve my writing.

Writers have always experienced a peculiar, Janus-like relationship with the non-writing public. Being among the ‘creatives’ in society, we are encouraged, even celebrated, in our ability to provide entertainment for the masses; to allow them to slip the bonds of their work-a-day lives and enter realms where good and evil battle endlessly for supremacy, and where good doesn’t always prevail, at least not until the next installment rolls off the presses. Then the god smiles on the writer, and the critics praise his efforts and lament the dearth of creativity in society, and presses roll out another spate of how-to books exclaiming, “You, too, can be (or become) more creative!”

Writers – and this applies especially to journalists, whether they write books or newspaper and magazine articles – have also always had the responsibility to “speak Truth to Power”, to expose, whenever possible, the misdeeds of governments and corporations, and provide the public the information necessary to combat the abuse of power. Then the god frowns on the writer, and governments and corporations berate him or her for the “misleading information”, “the lies”, “libels”, “unfounded accusations” and “unsubstantiated rumors”. These centers of power and influence have always viewed the writer as suspect, unreliable, and possibly subversive. Writers who continually joust with those in power have often been described in stereotypical terms; alcoholic, drug-addicted and mentally unbalanced, all to discredit those who question authority; and not only those who currently challenge authority, but those who would do so in the future.

That’s what it means to be a writer. It’s just like any other job or avocation. You have your good days and your bad. Like my mother used to say, “You pay your money, and you take your chance.”

In the end, I guess, it really doesn’t matter what type of writer you are (or become); whether you labor in the public eye like Stephen King, John LeCarré, or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, or you labor in secret like Winston Smith, the reluctant hero of George Orwell’s 1984, or even if you write a single word. It doesn’t matter what you do, what matters is that you do it. But if you’re human, and I’m betting you are, sooner or later you’ll give in to cacoethia scribendi, “the itch to scribble”. Just be warned, if you scratch that itch once, you won’t be able to stop.





What is “Writer’s Block”, really?

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DSCN0890  When I decide to write a post, one of the first assumptions I make is everyone who reads the post is a “writer” of one description or another; they are communicators, storytellers of one kind or another, regardless of the medium they use.  We all have the “cacoethia scribendi“, the itch to scribble and when we can’t scratch that itch the resulting tension becomes almost unbearable.  We call this inability to “scratch the itch” writer’s block.

I’ve suffered from this “malady”, often for long periods of time, struggled mightily trying to tell my story, to put words — any words — on the page only to be met with frustration and anger, finally tearing the page from the pad and hurling it onto the ever-growing pile of crumpled pages in (and around) the wastebasket.  At that point, I usually “disengage” from the process of writing proper and find something else to occupy my mind (I say “writing proper” because we all know the writing never actually stops when we move away from the page; there’s always “something” niggling in the recesses of our brains, eventually forcing us back to that cursed blank page).  I’ll grab my camera and wander the neighborhood in search of something to photograph, or pick up a book ( this activity usually only reinforces my feeling of failure at having been unable to fill that blank page), or I’ll turn my attention to some neglected housekeeping task, all the while hoping by doing so my unconscious/subconscious mind will eventually provide the impetus to return to the page and fill it with “deathless prose”.  It rarely happens and, in any case, my prose could hardly be called, “deathless”.

I was looking through my picture library when I came across the image above: a fountain pen seemingly abandoned on a blank pad of paper.  I had intended it as nothing more than a “study”, an exercise in composition and perspective.  I hadn’t intended it as anything else.  But seeing it in the context of my struggle with “writer’s block”, I became aware of the story behind the image.  In selecting those specific items for my “study”, I had unintentionally begun the process of writing this post.  In fact, I had “written” it, almost in its entirety.  That’s when the “light went on” and I come to understand the nature — the true nature — of my difficulty.  I wasn’t suffering from “writer’s block”, I was suffering from “translator’s block!”  The reason I couldn’t get the words on paper wasn’t because I couldn’t find the right words, I couldn’t find the right language — the right medium in which to begin.  I needed a visual cue — a “Rosetta Stone”, so to speak — to help me translate what was in my head and put it on the page.

If living has taught me anything it’s there is more than one language, one medium, in which to tell a story.  This was my story.  It started with a picture.  Your story may begin,  or it may be written in its entirety, in another “language”  — music, painting, sculpture, dance, what-have-you.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is your story.  Don’t confine yourself to only one way of telling.  What we call “writer’s block” is really your mind telling you, “There could be a different — better — way to tell this story”.  As creatives we owe it to ourselves (and our readers/viewers/listeners) to find that way.

Some of the Things on my Mind . . .

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I haven’t been posting much the past few days and I want to apologize to those few who have taken the trouble to stop by and see if anything new has been posted.  Actually, I’ve been reading quite bit; blogs (other than mine), books and magazines (both online and off).  I think the reading has had more to do with my lack of writing than any inability on my part to find something of interest to write about or any “writers’ block” .  The simple truth of the matter is, I despair of my writing.  The more I read, the more I come to realize the tremendous amount of I don’t know what (I was going to say self-delusion, but that somehow doesn’t really convey what I mean; hubris probably comes closest to the mark) it takes to aspire to being a writer. 

I know myself well enough to realize this attitude stems, mostly, from my own low self-esteem; I have no background in writing, no extended education and no true writing experience (outside of “letters-to-the-editor” and more than one failed attempt(s) at blogging). I wrote papers, of course, during my brief collegiate career but never gave it much thought as a means of earning a living, just assignments that needed completion.  Still, for all that, I’ve always (at least it seems like “always”) had this cacoethia scribendi, this “itch to scribble”  I just couldn’t shake.  So, having filled my (up until then, empty) head with Romantic visions of conquering the “world of letters”, I embarked on my “writing career”.  It lasted a little over a year.  What I learned was I had no real skill with words and absolutely no tolerance for rejection, which is kind of weird when you consider how many times I’ve been married.  Don’t ask, it’s not something I’m especially proud of (except for the fact I kept doing it until I got it right). 

Anyway, I set aside any notion of being, or becoming, a writer and set out in search of “gainful employment”.  In the course of my wanderings in the world of work, I’ve been at various times a sailor, salesman, taxi driver, bartender and cook; none of which were especially enjoyable (with the exception of cooking, but then I have this inbred desire to eat on occasion and cooking seemed a “good fit”).  I still wrote, from time to time, still scratching that “itch to scribble”, but didn’t produce anything of more than passing interest (to me anyway).  Then, when I wasn’t looking, something happened that really changed everything.  I got old.

I didn’t look old.  I certainly didn’t feel old.  When I looked in the mirror each morning, I still saw a young man, ready to take on the world, staring sleepily back at me.  I could still work, could still be productive.  I hadn’t done anything wrong, hadn’t done anything except survive; in spite of everything, Viet Nam, living in California (Oakland in the 60s), and  all that followed, I’d managed (somehow) to live to “retirement age”.  I was a “Senior Citizen” and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.  I tried, really tried to prove I wasn’t ready to be set out to pasture, but the effort proved useless.  I simply wasn’t “marketable”, as one interviewer phrased it.  As I said earlier, I’m not real good with rejection, so I finally accepted the reality of my situation and settled into retirement, uncomfortably.  Anybody tells you when you retire, you should enjoy those “golden years” is full of **it!  If I had to  assign a metal to retirement it wouldn’t be gold, it’d be lead.  Dull, gray, heavy lead.  Describes retirement (for me anyway) perfectly; dull, gray and heavy.

So, this is why I’m here, writing this drivel.  I’m tired of my dull, gray, heavy life and I’m trying to do something, something to give me a reason to get out of bed in the afternoon.

I just had an interesting thought; a question, really.  If the College of Cardinals had elected a black pope, would the Holy See pay any more attention to him than the Republicans do to President Obama?  Just askin’. . .

(I’ll try to be less “whiny” in future posts, I promise.)

How not to become a writer . . .(last part, . . .sort of)

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It didn’t take long for everything to fall apart.  It wasn’t ugly but it wasn’t pretty, either.  We both threw ourselves into the roles of parents; first as prospective parents, then actual parents, mother and father to a beautiful, smart, curious daughter, Samantha.

At first it was exciting; an adventure shared by two people determined to be the best possible parents to our daughter.  At the same time we wanted — needed — to maintain some semblance of our lives before parenthood, before all those plans and hopes and dreams had to be re-examined in light of their effect on “Sam” and the family.  Things we never thought about, or discussed only in passing, before now took on paramount importance.  Where would “Sam” go to school?  Where would we live?  Where to find the best doctors?  What about insurance?  All of these things required resources Cathy and I hadn’t developed.  We would, of course, but it was a difficult process, one I wouldn’t want to undertake again under those circumstances.  there was tension, of course.  I don’t suppose it can be otherwise when personal goals and dreams require giving way to family needs.  When you start to lose sight of your dreams, resentment is, I guess, a natural result.  We both had dreams, many dreams, but they were gradually subsumed by the demands of family.

Strangely enough Cathy’s dreams were the first to fade.  She had always dreamed of being a photographer, a photo-journalist.  She had converted an extraneous walk-in closet to a darkroom and spent many hours “closeted” (forgive the pun) with her rolls of film and chemicals, producing hundreds of prints which she dutifully catalogued.  As her pregnancy progressed, she spent less and less time in her darkroom.

“I’m not really comfortable around the chemicals,” she explained, frowning at her ever-burgeoning belly.  “I’m not sure if they’ll harm the baby.”  I said I understood, that it was only temporary.  She would be able to return to the darkroom and develop her film after the baby was born.  There was plenty of time.

I said I understood but I didn’t, really.  I didn’t understand those frowns weren’t only concern for the baby, but for the beginnings of the loss her dream, for the reality of things being put off.

I didn’t have the same concerns about writing; tapping computer keys were no threat to the unborn, were they?  But they were.  The hours spent hunched over a keyboard were hours away from Cathy and, since her birth, Samantha.  I found myself wondering if the time I spent writing weren’t selfishness on my part.  the one or two articles I managed to have published in obscure journals were not really contributing to our financial security.  Truth be told, they were just shy of “net-zero” in the finance department.  Maybe I should ease up on the writing and spend more time with the family.  Besides, when Samantha was older, in school maybe, there would be more time for writing.

If I put my mind to it, I could probably list all the reasons the marriage failed.  The dreams set aside, opportunities missed, decisions made (and not made).  There were myriad other things that, viewed in hindsight, seemed inconsequential but weren’t.  Eventually, it all became too much.

Looking back, I often wonder why, given our mutual dedication to parenthood, we chose divorce over “sticking it out”.  I can’t really speak for Cathy; we never really talked about the “whys” of our decision.  But the simple truth of it is we were just too physically and emotionally exhausted, too hurt and resentful to carry on until there was no feeling left, nothing to salvage.  Best to separate now, while we still felt something for one another..  It would be “for the best”.

Little changed, really, after the divorce.  The lawyers negotiated a “shared custody” agreement Cathy and I jointly ignore as we see fit, to accommodate Samantha’s sundry enthusiasms.  Strangely, we seem better parents since the divorce that we tried to be before.  Samantha, our joint creative project, seems happy and well-adjusted.  She graduates from Columbia University next year.  She says she wants to teach English (her major) in China after she graduates.

Cathy landed a gig as online editor for a travel magazine (I see a trip to China in her not-too-distant future).  I managed to land on my feet.  two years ago I bought a half interest in a restaurant.  It’s doing really well and has garnered some good reviews in the local press (I never realized how hard restauranteurs worked!).  As for my writing, I still get what Virgil or Cicero (I forget which) called, cacoethia scribendi, “the itch to scribble” now and then but there will be plenty of time for that; maybe after Samantha graduates . . .

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