Friday, August 8, 2008

To be a writer

If I could do only more item on my list before I die, I would definitely choose the first one: write a novel. For as long as I can remember that is something I have wanted to do, but have always fiddled around doing anything else instead. Why? Because, like everybody else... I fear failure. So I have never even made a start. Sure, poems, short stories, unfinished things that get shredded weeks later. But I want to write something of substance. Something that takes every single ounce of my physical, intellectual, and spiritual energy. (Surely that is the only way to write something great?) Unfortunately there are always distractions. And when there are none I invent them. Procrastination looms large.

Truman Capote started writing "seriously" when he was 11 years old. He came home from school every day and, while others his age may have been shooting hoops or practicing the piano, he wrote for three hours. Is that what it means to be a writer? Is it the time spent in the act of writing, or the number of works one has published that is important? Does it take a certain type of eccentric character? Should I start smoking cigarettes and talk to my houseplants? Wear only black?

What is a writer? I suppose the definition is vague. Many people could legitimately call themselves writers. But then there are those people in the world whose writing is of a caliber which can change the course of the lives of everyone who reads them. Nothing, not even the brightest fireworks or the most profoundly stirring music can do for me what some passages in a few novels can do. The hair on my neck stands up.

George Orwell said something along the lines of a writer being a collector of odds and ends, of snippets of conversations, themes, words, and ideas; each an important piece, like a grain of sand that, when brought together and melted down into one mass, is turned into a strong, clear pane of glass that becomes the frame through which a reader comes to see language illuminated. I want to be a collector of sand, gathering the grains together over time, observing everything that might be turned into a story. I would love to create a window pane that is so clear the reader doesn’t even know it’s there, seeing only what it frames.

Chekhov said, "Man will become better only when he sees what he is like." Some writers do make people see what they are like. And in so doing, they change the world. If I could write something that changes only one person, I would be happy. But of course I'm getting way ahead of myself, which is always the problem. I just need to start writing a little bit every day and see where it eventually takes me. And I'll still work on the rest of my list when I'm not writing!

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