Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper —Ray Bradbury
How many of you, once you’ve told someone that you are a writer, have received the blithe response, “Oh, yes, I’ll be a writer too someday. I’ll write that great Canadian bestseller—once I have time…” Implying that writing was a hobby and time—not talent or discipline or vision or artistic spirit—was the only required ingredient.
When I was five years old I already knew that I wanted to be a writer. My sister and I didn’t just play dolls; we created worlds and spun epic tales of great scope, with a diverse cast of characters that spanned the far reaches of the universe. Stories of thrilling adventure, crazy irony, great intrigue and mystery. Stories of betrayal, love, loss, redemption and victory. I knew in my heart that I was always a writer—even when I wasn’t (writing, that is). As a child I knew that writing was in my soul and that I would write for the rest of my life. Still…it took me a while to admit it to the world.
Films often portray the writer as self-loathing and self-destructive, moody, unstable, and narcissistic. Think of the following films and how they portray the writer: Sunset Boulevard. The Shining. Misery. Sliding Doors. Secret Window. Sideways. My Brilliant Career. Stranger than Fiction. The Royal Tenenbaums. As Good As It Gets. Adaptation. Deconstructing Harry. Wonder Boys. Midnight in Paris. Barton Fink. Limitless. Ruby Sparks. The Words.
“Deplorable actions are almost expected from fictional writers in films,” says a recent Huffington Post article. “Novelists and poets are consistently portrayed as snobby, outlandish, mawkish, or untrustworthy. They lie, cry, brag and steal their way to fame.”
Joe Muscolino of Word & Film shares that, “It’s become a visual cliché: The writer slouched in his chair, conflicted, chain-smoking, achingly alone, and oblivious to anything outside his cave of thoughts. He’s desperately waiting for that one savior of a sentence to rescue him from the shackles of banality. Opposite him sits a blank page. Watching him. Haunting him. It’s ideally nestled in a typewriter, despite the nearby objects suggesting that it’s most definitely the twenty-first century. The clock ticks. Nothing… Obviously, if you scratch the surface of any stereotype you’ll find a more nuanced layer of reality. Writers can just as easily be shining examples of happiness and sobriety. But nuanced realities don’t sound as fun as drug-addled depressives, and they don’t make for good stories.”
That’s the stereotype. What about the reality?
In Dorothy L. Sayer’s 1939 mystery novel The Nine Tailors, the iconic dilettante and gentleman detective Lord Peter Wimsey has a most interesting exchange about writers and our perception of them with the young Miss Hilary Thorpe—herself an aspiring writer. It’s worth recounting here as it reflects one author’s thoughts, even if through a fictional character. In the scene, following her father’s death, Miss Thorpe shares how the act of “wondering” helps her through her grief:
“…it really makes things easier to do a little wondering, I mean, if you’re once interested in a thing it makes it seem leas real. That’s not the right word, though.”
‘Yes, that’s what I mean. You begin to imagine how it all happened, and gradually it gets to feel more like something you’ve made up.”
“Hmm!” said Wimsey. “If that’s the way your mind works, you’ll be a writer one day.”
“Do you think so? How funny! That’s what I want to be. But why?”
“Because you have creative imagination, which works outwards, till finally you will be able to stand outside your own experience and see it as something you have made, existing independently or yourself. You’re lucky.”
“Do you really think so?” Hilary looked excited.
“Yes—but your luck will come more at the end of life than at the beginning, because the other sort of people start by thinking you dreamy and romantic, and then they’ll be surprised to discover that you are really hard and heartless. They’ll be quite wrong both times—but they won’t ever know it, and you won’t know it at first, and it’ll worry you.”
“But that’s just what the girls say at school. How did you know?…Though they’re all idiots—mostly, that is.”
“Most people are,” said Wimsey, gravely, ‘but it isn’t kind to tell them so. I expect you do tell them so. Have a heart; they can’t help it…”
Thank you, Lord Peter. While we’re at it, another of Sayer’s fictional characters, Mr Edward Thorpe, shares that, “authorship is a good stick, but a bad crutch.”
So, what is it to be a writer? Are we all in the end a bit crazy like the stereotype suggests? All I know is that I if I didn’t, my soul would suffer. As Isaac Asimov said, “I write for the same reason as I breathe—because if I didn’t, I would die.”
I write to live and live to write. I’ve known this all my life, from the tales I shared with my sister at age 7 to the novels I currently write. There is, quite simply, nothing that matches the experience of capturing the beating heart of a story, resonating with its core emotional song, and embracing the thrill of sharing it with the world. Just as director Christopher Nolan said of musical genius Hans Zimmer, I embrace “the thrill and mess of reality’s disregard for abstract intentions—the making of the thing is the thing itself.”
Writers on Writing…
“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.” —Enid Bagnold
“If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts. But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” ― Kurk Vonnegut
“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” —Robert A. Heinlein
“…Writers are a savage breed, Mr. Strike. If you want life-long friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels.” ― Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm
“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”
“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.” —Stephen King
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” —George Orwell
“If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.”—Somerset Maugham
“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” —George Orwell
“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”—Herman Melville
“It is perfectly okay to write garbage–as long as you edit brilliantly.”—C. J. Cherryh
“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.” —Virginia Woolf
“I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.”—Erica Jong
“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”—Terry Pratchett
“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”—Orson Scott Card
“A wounded deer leaps the highest.”—Emily Dickinson
“Writing is its own reward.”—Henry Miller
“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”—E. L. Doctorow
“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”—Barbara Kingsolver
“I write for the same reason as I breathe—because if I didn’t, I would die.”—Isaac Asimov