Posts Tagged ‘writing’
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.
This is my first attempt at learning about blogging from an established tutor (or group of tutors) so I’m a tad nervous. never know if I’m doing it correctly or not
Here goes. My name is Steve and I’m an essayist (of sorts). Actually, I don’t know if ‘essayist’ is the proper term; I write whatever appeals to me at the time. This covers a wide variety of subjects and topics of interest (mostly to me). I’ve been blogging, off and on, for about four years and have not been consistent in the practice. That’s one of the reasons I signed up for this course. . .consistency. I have none.
To give you some idea of how I view my efforts on this site, I encourage you to read “About Walking the Cat”. I think it’s pretty clear on what I do and why I do it.
That’s about it. BTW, to those who read my blog on a more or less regular basis, I apologize for intruding with this assignment.
A few years ago, I decided I wanted to write a book about Jesus. I was somewhat inspired by a quote by Oscar Wilde to the effect that all beginning writers start out writing about Jesus Christ or themselves. Since my life doesn’t lend itself to “thrilling narrative”, I thought the subject of Jesus a worthy one to investigate. Besides, I carried with me an ill-defined “anger” against God and thought writing such a book would, in some equally ill-defined way, serve to mitigate that anger. But a curious thing happened during my research and writing. I discovered I wasn’t so much angry with God as I was angry with those who purported to “serve God’s interests” on earth; specifically the Roman Catholic Church.
Strangely enough, as my anger dissipated so did my desire to continue the book. I’d only ever showed the pages I’d written to one other person, (my brother, Mike), whose opinion I valued (and still value) above all others. His comments were “encouraging” and allowed me to believe the project was worthy of completion. However, my own lack of self-confidence, as well as any credentials that would lend support to any conclusions I may, or may not, have reached in the book, dissuaded me from finishing the work. I put the hundred or so finished pages in a box and promptly forgot about them . . . almost entirely.
The other night I was watching a tape of “Jesus Christ Superstar”, the Andrew Lloyd Weber/Tim Rice rock opera, when I began thinking of my long-forgotten book about Jesus. I’ve always enjoyed the album and the film, finding Andrew Lloyd Weber’s lyrics slightly “subversive” (but only slightly) and tending to support my feelings regarding organized religion (which are more than “slightly” subversive). I came to the realization my book, should I ever decide to finish it, was every bit as valid an interpretation of the Gospel “facts” as anyone else’s. Granted, I’m what you would call an “intuitive” writer, willing to write what I “know” based on historical evidence (of which there is none), rather than reiterating the established dogma of previous writers. In any event, the material presented in the Gospels is so contradictory, so removed from the events they supposedly recount, what difference would it make to add one more retelling? And besides, it’s entirely possible my posting of these pages could provide the impetus to complete the tale I started so long ago.
Enough “back story”. Without further ado, I give you . . .
It’s funny, really, the things you remember about certain events in your life, like where you were when JFK was shot, or the moon landing . . .
Cathy was standing in the kitchen doorway; not standing, really, leaning against the door jamb, bare feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and nibbling on her lower lip the way she did when trying to decide on the right moment to . . .
She righted herself in the doorway, deciding, I guess, now was as good a time as any. “Steve,” she said, padding across the livingroom toward me. “We need to talk.”
I knew, even then, that particular line meant something serious, something requiring my undivided attention, needed to be addressed, and the way Cathy was standing over me, arms folded across her chest, confirmed that hypothesis. I closed the book I was reading and as casually as possible so as not to betray my anxiety, said. “Okay, babe. What’s up?”
Her expression softened a bit (Cathy always took on, I guess you could call it a “flinty” expression when broaching a serious subject; like she was prepared for a shouting match, if it came to that), and she settled onto the sofa, shifted around to face me and tucked her feet up under her. Cathy was tall — 5′ 9″ in her bare feet — with a tall woman’s feline grace, and the way she folded herself onto the sofa enhanced the effect. (Did I mention I love cats?) “Steve, I think it’s time you got a real job.”
I can’t say I was shocked. We’d had this conversation before. Well, not exactly this conversation but one very like it. They usually involved me explaining, yet again, about the need to have ample time for writing, how it was only a matter of time, one good break and our present difficulties would be a thing of the past. Cathy would tell me how good my writing was, how it wasn’t really my fault I couldn’t catch a break and that she understood how important the writing was to me. It would go on like that for a while, then we would hug one another and resolve, each of us, to do better in the future.
“But I have a real job,” I said, barely trying to conceal my indignation.
Cathy reached over and laid a hand on my arm. “Honey, I know that,” she said. “And you’re really good at what you do. But it’s been four, nearly five, years and you haven’t made any real, significant progress.”
“Getting published doesn’t happen overnight,” I countered. “It takes time.”
“I realize that.” She withdrew her hand and assumed a no-nonsense attitude. “But you, we, have to face facts. We haven’t been able to save any money, the car needs work, and with the baby coming we’re going to need a bigger place to live.”
“Cathy, I know money’s tight right now,” I said, preparing my usual rebuttal when something . . .different registered in my consciousness. “Wait a minute! Did you say, ‘a baby coming’?”
Cathy didn’t say anything at first. She just looked at me with a sheepish, almost-but-not-quite contrite expression and nodded. Her ponytail shook happily as her head bobbed. “I’m pregnant,” she said, finally.
That night, lying in bed, listening to Cathy’s steady, contented breathing, I stared into the darkness and tried to imagine fatherhood. Doctor bills. Clothes. Food. School. Orthodonture! What if we have a girl? Dance classes. Dresses. More orthodonture. Boyfriends! Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to ‘get my head around it’. And underneath it all, peering out of the dark like a cat from a paper bag, was the question, When was I going to find time to write? The answer was going to have to wait, for now. First thing in the morning I would go down to the restaurant where I tended bar and talk to the owner, Bill. Maybe, if I explained the situation to him, I could pick up another shift of two.
With that I started to drift off to restless sleep. But the question was still lurking in the dark, waiting for an answer . . .(to be continued)
This is going to be a long post, so I thought I’d break it up and write about this topic over several posts.
When I first decided to become a writer it wasn’t because I wanted to help people, or thought I had anything important to say; no “Great American Novel” lurking in the furthest recesses of my admittedly limited imagination. I just thought it was a really cool way of earning a living. I was twenty-two, recently discharged from the Navy and casting about for some means of making a buck. Writing seemed an ideal choice. Of course, I had no background in writing and no training other than a couple of English Lit. courses in high school. But I read a lot while in the Navy (mostly “trashy” novels and pulp spy thrillers) and thought, naively, I could write as well as the guys whose work I was reading. After all, I thought, “How hard can it be?”
It turns out it takes almost as much skill to write “trash” as it does to produce “quality” fiction. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. Back then what I knew about writing was, come up with an idea, write it down, send it to a publisher and wait for the money to start rolling in. Doesn’t work that way. (Duh!)
It didn’t take long for me to realize I needed help. I decided to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and enroll in the local community college. I could get both help for my writing and an education that would allow me to get a decent job if this “writing thing” didn’t work out. (By the way, don’t ever embark on a writing career with the idea that, at some point, “it may not work out!”)
Time passed and my life began to take on a routine of sorts. I was still writing more or less regularly, but the demands of married life (I had gotten married shortly after college) began to intrude on the writing. I took whatever work I could find; drove a cab, worked in a pizza shop, tended bar part-time in order to leave time for my writing which, after three years, was beginning to show results; meager results, but results nonetheless. I managed to have a couple of op-ed pieces published in the local paper (no money, but published clips to show editors); a piece on Hemingway was published in a literary magazine (contributor’s copies). All I needed was one good break. Then everything changed. . . .(to be continued)
I have spent a good portion of my life in pursuit of an experience I can’t adequately describe. I can only describe the circumstances of my first encounter with this elusive interaction.
It was during a creative writing class in college I first had the “encounter” that would become my life’s obsession.
The class had been given an assignment to describe, in a few hundred words (I think it was 300 hundred words), an inanimate object of given dimensions. I chose an old Smith-Corona portable typewriter. It was a hideous thing; a compact combination of turquoise body with fat, white keys encased in its own turquoise carrying case. My parents got if for me for Christmas one year. I think I was thirteen or thereabouts.
Anyway, back to creative writing class. For the assignment I wrote my description as a “conversation” between myself and the typewriter (one that has, for better or worse, continued through the ensuing years), describing it in skeletal terms; a “death’s-head” smile of grinning, fat, fat white teeth and shock of white paper protruding from the roller; how I sat silently before the thing, waiting for the words to come. I forget now, after all these years, everything I wrote to describe our “conversation”. I do remember struggling with it for some time before I felt it would be acceptable for the assignment. I also remember I was not especially eager to read it in class.
I waited patiently as my classmates read their pieces; each one better, at least to my thinking, than the last. When my turn to read came, I hesitated for a moment or two, then launched into my reading with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. It took less than two minutes to read the piece and when I finished I steeled myself for the inevitable criticisms I felt sure were to come. The class was silent. I guess you could call it a “pregnant pause”. Then from somewhere behind me, a single word, “Wow”. It wasn’t an explosive “WOW!”; more a subdued expression of incredulity. I don’t know who said it. I didn’t turn to look.
I don’t recall the grade I received for the paper, or if a grade was given. The paper has long since disappeared. There is only one thing I remember about that class: that single “Wow!”. I’ve been chasing that “Wow” ever since, trying to capture, or recapture, the feeling of doing, or having done, something special, something no one else could do.
I came close once, several years ago. But that’s a story for another post . . .
Why isn’t writing considered art? Why is it art and literature, not art of literature? Both art and writing (and here I’m referring to fiction writing) are the result of myriad crafts; discrete skill sets honed to, or near, perfection and combined, one with another, until a desired effect is achieved.
Both artist and writer must, over time, acquire and master the crafts specific to their chosen medium.
A painter would learn drawing, drafting, composition, perspective, how to blend color, etc. . . If necessary, he may learn the rudiments of carpentry in order to make frames for canvases, or how to plaster to prepare a wall for a fresco. All the while the artist practices technique so the color he applies to canvas or wall appears smooth and even, not ladled on with a trowel (unless, of course, that is the effect he desires, in which case he is required to acquire yet another skill set).
A writer learns language, grammar, composition, dialogue, narrative form, descriptive device and so on; all the while practicing his technique in order to develop a unique style, a voice. He does this so he is able to apply the various skills he has mastered in a smooth and seamless way and avoid causing unnecessary confusion in his reader. But once he adds characters to his story (and what is a story without characters?), he must acquire at least a minimal understanding of the skill sets of the characters; what they do, how they do it, perhaps even how they feel about what they do. If he fails in this, his characters lack depth and appear mere caricatures rather than living, breathing people. He doesn’t have to put everything about the character in the story, but the knowledge gained lends depth to the portrayal.
By contrast, the artist needs only to see his subjects. For example, Degas didn’t have to become a dancer to paint his ballerinas. He didn’t have to experience hours of practice, aching muscles and blistered feet. He only needed to watch them. Writers need to involve themselves more deeply in the lives of their subjects.
So why then isn’t writing art? Both artist and writer acquire and master similar skill sets, similar crafts; only the medium differs. The artist chooses paint and canvas; the writer, pen and paper.
I think the answer lies in the idea that writing, like reading, is too personal an activity to be art.
A painting is static, When completed, a painting is what it is; an isolated moment in time. Degas’ ballerina is forever frozen in time, waiting. The writer presents us with a dynamic vision; a story from which we, as readers, can draw lessons about our own lives and a deeper appreciation of the lives of others. And, if a character is portrayed with exceptional skill, we may be inspired to emulate him or her. I doubt very seriously if anyone was inspired to become a dancer after viewing one of Degas’ portraits.
And yet the most, the best, we can say of the successful writer is he or she is an exceptional storyteller, a master of the craft. Given what’s required for success in writing, I suppose that’s the best one can hope for.