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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.

 

 


 

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The Thing About Writing . . .

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There are times I feel this “writing thing” will drive me mad. Errant thoughts dance through my mind just at the edge of awareness and just as my conscious mind is about to snatch them up, they skitter away, laughing (or so I imagine), like children in a game of tag. I try to capture these twinkling, dancing bits of brilliance and lash them to the page with streams of ink but I cannot.

Neil Gaiman once said something to the effect that writing was simply the act of sitting down at the computer and writing one word after another until you’re finished. (I don’t write at a computer; only transcribe the finished work. I use a pen — a Zebra F-301 ballpoint with a fine point). There is a part of the writing process missing from Gaiman’s description, the absence of which anyone who has attempted to write anything will recognize. Writing isn’t simply the act of putting one word after another. The thing that makes writing so deceptively simple and so maddeningly difficult at the same time is writing the right word, in the right order, on the page. That is the agony and the ecstasy of the writing process. It is also why there’s so much emphasis on rewriting; the need to find the right words.

Re-writing (writing, too, for that matter) is a sadomasochistic act; sadistic in that we demand it of ourselves, masochistic for submitting to it willingly (even eagerly). Writers have a tendency to perversity (in our writing regimens, if not elsewhere), so rewriting is just one more bit to be added to an ever-growing list of perversions, including (but not limited to) imbibing obscene quantities of caffeine-laden beverages along with dangerously high levels of nicotine (I tried e-cigarettes, but it’s just not the same), prolonged periods of self-imposed isolation (during which friends and family may be inclined to fear for our health, mental and physical), and repeated bouts of self-flagellating, mind-fucking self-doubt; all this, and more, in some demented attempt to simply “put one word after another” on the page. What sane person would submit, willingly, to such a nightmarish ordeal? Me. I would. I’m a writer.

And when it’s all over, the writing and the rewriting; when we feel, finally, we’ve found all the right words and managed, through force of will, to put them in the right order on the page, ready for the world to see, what then? We bind our wounds; gather up all the tears of frustration, the curses of self-doubt, the whoops of joy and the screams of anger and fear. We bundle these into our journals and diaries . . .and pour them all into our next book, or short story, or essay.

Written by stevewthomas

April 19, 2015 at 6:12 pm

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