Lots of people — maybe everyone who is or fancies themselves a writer — has ideas about what it means to write, what it means to be a writer. I am a writer and, of course, I have ideas. I have been a writer since I was 2 or 3 years old. I couldn’t read, but I could write and I did write. I “wrote” and handed the scribbled paper to my dad to read to me. At that point, I knew writing had to be read, but it didn’t seem to me that reading had anything to do with the act of writing. I was completely sure I was writing good stories.
Truman Capote described himself writing as a child, too, but when he started, he was able to read. He said, “I began writing really sort of seriously when I was about eleven. I say seriously in the sense that like other kids go home and practice the violin or the piano or whatever, I used to go home from school every day and I would write for about three hours. I was obsessed by it.” I was about the same age when I took over my dad’s typewriter and began writing poetry.
Those early poems are not crap, nor are they “cringeworthy” (not my word). They are previsions of my adult life, compass needles pointing to things I would always love. In my first typed poem, I wrote about being out all night in a forest (I lived near a forest at the time) during a storm. Some lines of this first poem sing. Twelve year old Martha wrote, “Beauty gives wings to my feet,” “Thunder roars from the mountain,” “all stars shine in their own territory.” The poem begins and ends with the same lines — a really nice way to say, “Nature is cyclical.”
One of my high school teachers said to me, “If you want to write poetry, you need to learn to write a sonnet.” What that means is not that only sonnets are poetry, but that they are difficult and you learn a lot about language, imagery, rhythm and sound from making your meaning come through in those 14 lines. Once you’ve written a few, you get it. It’s the part of writing that is often regarded as “hard work” — discipline, revision, economy. Again, not my words.
When someone teaches writing (as I did for more than 35 years), they usually teach about the characteristics of a genre. They’ve read a bunch of stuff and they know the qualities that are expected to be there and they teach them. But no one gets up in the morning and says, “Damn, what a great day to write description!” All those things serve something else, the expression of ideas, visions, whatever that is inside a person that is the reason behind the writing. They’re tools for writing, they are not writing itself.
Real writing comes from having something to say and understanding to whom you need to say it. Sometimes you need to say it to yourself; sometimes you need to tell others something. Sometimes it’s urgent; sometimes it’s not. When I started writing this blog on WP I was disgusted by the Daily Prompt, but I undertook it. Why? Because I’ve learned that one of my enemies as a person and as a writer is thinking I know when I don’t leading to the fallacy of “automatic rejection.” I’d never attempted a “daily prompt.” It’s proven to be a harmless, and sometimes constructive, focus for short essays and stories that carry no consequences. A (wonderful) side-benefit has been the evolution of a community of readers. It’s all very nice.
All the terms for writing and writerliness such as “voice,” “structure,” “pacing,” “narrative arc,” etc. it’s all (to me) a bunch of blathering nonsense, but they are useful to many people for talking about writing in the way they want to talk about it. That’s all fine, but to me the job of a writer is first and foremost to write. Then I try to read the work dispassionately enough to know whether I have served the task to the best of my ability, because once something has been written it is no longer the possession of the writer. It belongs to a larger world.
My most profound experience with this was with my first novel, Martin of Gfenn. I wrote it, loved every moment of that process, it ended up 500+ manuscript pages of what I thought (because of the way I’d FELT writing it) profound, sterling, flawless prose. Five years later, I looked at it again and it was a leviathon of repetition and over-writing –naturally so since I had only had — at most — an hour at a time to work on it. I didn’t know what to do, but the answer came from the protagonist himself. In the story he does a painting that is so bad he doesn’t know what to do. His teacher tells him he has two choices. He can paint over it but always know what’s behind it, or start over and do it right. “Art cannot abide laziness,” he says to the young Martin.
I didn’t know how to do what I needed to do and, to help me, a great writer (Capote, again) appeared in my dreams as if to say, “Look at my work.” I did. I read everything Capote wrote, including what he had to say about writing. I applied it to my book. It ended up half as long and no word in that book is out of place, extra, or empty.
We learn as we go. When we start a project we bring the self we are at that moment along with our skills and understanding. BUT…the work itself is going to teach us and change us. There’s no recipe. It’s a journey into an unknown world, or, more accurately, a world that never existed before. Sometimes we’re stuck. That’s part of it.
I think Theodore Roethke’s poem, “The Waking,” is a great explication of what it means to write. In writing we do “learn by going where” we have to go.