To Be a Writer

Are writers born or are writers made?

I’m inclined to say both, though I’m definitely of the made variety, and self made at that. It’s true that a certain type of person is more inclined toward the writing life style. Perhaps introverts who are empathetic and intuitive and disorganized in their lives. Even though the project of fiction consists of giving causal order to a chaotic universe, you have to thrive in chaos in order to create truly living fiction, and as Orson Scott Card says, “you have to be able to delude yourself into thinking that you really understand people and why they do the things they do.”

You need to, as I do, be able to draw energy from being alone. Writing is a lonely profession in which you must endure long periods of solitude without flinching—and even enjoy such times. A book is never really written by only one person, but the hard, monotonous part of the work—like the slave driven donkey being forced up a mountain—belongs solely to you and usually must be done alone.

On a more practical level, you must be a delicately balanced combination of confident and self-critical—to learn from your errors and improve, but also have enough guts to continually send your work out for publication. Anyone who puts a word to paper could be called a writer, but many fail because they never learn any better than their first attempts, and then give up because they’re insecure about those first attempts.

I took a class studying the art of the short story once, by the poet Laureate in Utah. One of his nonfiction essays combined a series of moments in his life all illustrating something he’d learned about death. It was a beautiful essay, but I couldn’t help thinking, Yeah well, if those things had happened to me, richly interesting essays would pour out of my fingers too.

I was joking, and this professor responded to my question, “So are you just born with a poet’s heart, and if you don’t have it, too bad?” by saying:

You must train yourself to see life as a writer.

Neil Gaiman has said: “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

It is the sacred duty of a writer to pay attention—to notice life. And to remain, against all odds, in the present. On the days where I feel like my solitary and artistic choice of profession is a little self-indulgent, I think about the primary contribution great books give to people, or at least to me, and this is to tell the truth. Fantasy, science fiction, fairy tales—it doesn’t have to be couched in reality to tell a truth. In fact, sometimes truth is more effectively presented in obvious fiction.

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So, I think maybe after we’re done reading a lot and writing a lot, one of the best things a writer can do is observe. You’re presenting life to other people in way that will hopefully mean something to them. You’re the channel. The translator, the mediator. To quote Elizabeth Gilbert: “We need our artists more than ever, and we need them to be stable, steadfast, honorable and brave – they are our soldiers, our hope.” Understanding what you’re seeing is a tricky skill to learn, and even trickier to present it in an entertaining but honest way to others.

But that’s your job as a writer.

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