HOW TO TELL IF YOU’RE A WRITER
A new acquaintance stared at me with a look I imagine is usually reserved for little green men stepping out of their flying saucers. I’d just told her I don’t watch television, and in fact, don’t even own one. “I write instead.” We went down the list of my immediate family members, and somehow that was the first time I realized that we all write. My husband writes academic theory papers that are—literally—mostly greek (all those mathematical symbols, you know). Daughter #1 is a human rights attorney who covers “foreign policy, human rights, and shetland ponies” for vox.com. Daughter #2 writes comedy for a hot new late night show. My son does technical writing, but often throws out hilarious satire. And Daughter #3 is my occasional coauthor on the Null City series.
Supposedly, Samuel Johnson, author of “A Dictionary of the English Language” (1755) said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” (as quoted by his brilliant biographer, James Boswell). However, Boswell then added the comment, “Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of Literature.”(Both quotes from Life of Samuel Johnson, LLD (1791) by James Boswell.) [Image credit: Portrait of Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds]
“Why do you do it?” my new friend asked. “Money?” Well… yes, actually. Money is not a dirty word for writers and artists. As my daughter wrote about growing up as a writer’s kid, “Would I still be in comedy if my mom had never written a single column? Maybe. But I would be crappier at it. I’m ambitious because I learned vicariously the thrill of creating something awesome and getting paid for it.” (Melinda Taub, Splitsider on May 6, 2011) Still, let’s face it—there are much easier and more lucrative ways to make money, often involving the words “…and would you like fries with that?”
There are other theories about why people write. Eugene O’Neil said, “Writing is my vacation from living.” It was also his therapy. Arguably his master work, the autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night was his way of exorcising the demons of his dysfunctional family. Certainly, he wasn’t looking for it to provide money or fame, and indeed specified in his will that it not be published or performed until twenty-five years after his death. Within today’s writing environment, the opportunity to make sense of your past through writing about it—whether in social media, blogs, independent publishing, or even traditional publishing—has led to an explosion of personal and dynamic storytelling such as the simultaneously hilarious and gut-wrenching posts in writer Mary Smith’s My Dad Is A Goldfish blog.
Others write because they’ve caught a glimpse of how words can rock the world. Daughter #1 says she remembers writer Iris Chang’s speech at her high school graduation.
“At sixteen, I was not yet planning to go into the human rights field, but I remember watching her give that speech, and thinking that if I grew up to be someone like her, who did the things that she did, that would be something to be proud of. Many times, since then, I have thought about her speech when I have felt tempted to be the kind of person who just gets on with life and doesn’t bother reaching for something better. At those times, I have remembered seeing her, up on that stage, telling a room of fascinated children that we would have moments when cynicism and surrender seemed like attractive options, but that she believed we would be strong enough to overcome them. And then I have decided that cynicism can wait for another day.” (Amanda Taub, Wronging Rights)
Why do I write? I was very lucky. My youngest daughter and I started telling each other a story, and when she headed off to college, I sat down and typed it up. As Maya Angelou put it, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Others agree:
- “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”(Gloria Steinem)
- “Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself.” (Terry Pratchett)
- “You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you’ve got something to say,” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
So what do we all have in common? My favorite explanation, hands down (although slightly NSF this blog) comes from Chuck Wendig’s terribleminds blog:
“What matters is, knowing that your time on this Hurtling Space Sphere is limited, you should make an effort to live your life — and your art — the way you damn well want to. Do you really want someone to chisel the words MADE MEDIOCRE ART SHE DIDN’T MUCH LIKE BECAUSE SHE THOUGHT THAT’S WHAT SOMEONE ELSE WANTED HER TO DO on your gravestone? Or would you rather them carve in the words: ROCKED IT LIKE A MOTHERF***ER, WROTE WHAT SHE DAMN WELL WANTED, BOO-YAH, MIC-DROP –?”
As a public service for all you who are wondering if you can call yourselves writers, I’ve written the following quiz:
_____1. Do you have arguments with your characters about what should come next? Do you lose?
_____2. Do you eavesdrop on other people’s personal conversations because you might use them in your novel? Really?
_____3. Still flinching?
_____4. Do you have conversations with the paragraphs you’re cutting out of your manuscript, assuring them that you’re going to put them in a wonderful, safe little file (called Dead Kittens) so you can use them in your next book, but that doesn’t mean you don’t love them very, very much?
_____5. When you hear about a friend’s romantic relationship, do you think about how you would keep them apart for at least five more chapters to build tension?
_____6. Do you worry about the NSA noticing that your recent online searches include “best place to get shot”, “how to pick any lock”, “lightweight hunting bow”, “best concealed-carry weapons”, “how to tell if you’re being followed”, “amount of blood loss that is survivable”, and “getting a fake passport”?
_____7. Do you write at night? Sometimes until the next night? Wearing sweats so you don’t have to change to take the dog out?
_____8. Have you written the words “THE END”? And meant it?
If you checked off numbers 1-7, you can high-five the other writer wannabe’s in your writing group. If you ticked #8, congratulations: you’re a writer.
And me? I’ve just typed “THE END” on Round Trip Fare, Book 3 of the Null City series, plus I have a new travel/humor memoir, Do Not Wash Hands In Plates. I’m a writer!
I take a humorous look at writing, books, and life at Writing & Coffee. Especially Coffee.
My books are available from major online sellers including Amazon US and Amazon UK.
I would love to hear from you! When I’m not travelling or walking the dog, you can find me at home in Glasgow, Scotland trying to hide from feral packs of rampaging haggis. Or you can reach me via Twitter (@barbtaub) or Facebook, or just sneaking off for some quality time with my Kindle.