Friday, March 25, 2011

What Makes You A Writer

By Susan

Beginning a novel is like falling in love. There is music on the breeze, sleeplessness when you should rest, heart palpitations when sitting perfectly still. It is The Fog--a definite and solid yet shimmering love cloud that permeates your world and your brain and your pen. You write fast. You are filled with amazement at the possibilities contained within one blank and black notebook. You write your name on the first page--your full name, in neat script--and you date it. Then, although slightly embarrassed but without shame, you write: THE NOVEL.Twenty thousand words later, it is all garbage and you know it. Your black notebook is now full of smudged pencil markings you call 'words' and doodles and family trees and city maps you created from the air. It was brilliant once. You were as well. Yet now, at the twenty thousand word mark, it is trash and you are ashamed that you started this odyssey by calling it THE NOVEL. And so you push it into a drawer, or under your bed, or you hide it from yourself in the old and musty travel trunk with fabric lining that was your grandfather's. Hemingway had a trunk like this. Yet you are no Hemingway.
Some time later--but not much--a character from that piece of refuse knocks on your subconscious. Maybe she appears in a dream, wanting to know the rest of her own story. Maybe you are sitting on a plane and the man next to you is mysteriously familiar, and you think, "Ah, yes. That is the face of my hero that I drew in words in that old black notebook." You go looking for it. When you can't find it, you make notes on beverage napkins in restaurants to remind yourself of the next thing that happens in your story. You stuff the pieces of paper in your Bible, or in your purse, or in your wallet. When you find the notes again, you see it as a sign and begin looking in earnest for the tattered and weary notebook that you discarded in haste.

You find it. It is not crap, as you had convinced yourself before. Yet it isn't brilliant either. It could be. You begin writing again, and this time, you type it. It seems more real this way, how you can measure the weight of it in word count and page numbers and margin distances. You password protect the file, because you can. Because someone might read it. Yet you continue on, pounding out words in the middle of the night. You drink coffee, and sometimes Chardonnay. And you type.

At some point, maybe at 50,000 words, you take a vacation by yourself to write. A young waiter in an ocean-side cafe asks you what you do and what brings you here because he says that to everyone and you simply tell him you are a writer. Yet you do not feel like one, really. Maybe saying it will make it true. You churn out more words and then you wake up one morning and realize that you know how the story will end. You feel as if maybe you are a real writer after all because you have written 90,000 words and they all make sense and come together like the continents would if you removed the oceans. It is all there. Right in front of you.

Does this make you a writer, the years and failures and revisions and hopefulness? Or were you a writer all along, chipping away at the granite to reveal a work of art that you didn't know was there? Were you a writer when you started your journey? Or did it happen when you hit the 20,000 word wall? Maybe it happened when you told the waiter in Key West that it was true. Or maybe now, now that it is complete, you are real.

An agent doesn't make you a writer. Neither does a publishing house, or your mother's approval, or the fact that you have a trunk like Hemingway. If you write, you are a writer. Talking about it doesn't make it so.

So you want to be a writer? Write. Take the doubt and fear and brilliance and turn it into something that no one can craft but you.

Good luck.


  1. Love this, and I want that Key West vacation! Or even maybe Gulf Shores. Or the crappy beach an hour from my house. Or I could drive to the river two blocks away and sit in the parking lot while the birds eat dead bugs off the rocks. Or use the hour after I get home from work to sit in my backyard and write instead of getting on Twitter...

    Why does that last one sound harder?


  2. Sharla, the last one, for some reason, is ALWAYS the hardest! My wish for you is that you spend this weekend writing in your backyard (at the minimum). Venture towards water if you can!

    As a side note, I really did take the solo Key West writing vacation. I highly recommend it!

  3. Beautiful. "An agent doesn't make you a writer." Perfect and important.

    When I had lunch with my agent recently she asked me THE question. She asked "Do you write every day?"

    And you know what? I answered her honestly. I DO. I write at least 1k every day. And I read too. All the time. Write and read. And persist.

    Lovely post.

  4. Great post! I love it!

  5. Suzanne and Isabelle- thanks for stoppng by!

  6. I loved this post, Susan. It's taken years, but I no longer hesitate when people ask me what I do. "I'm a writer." And that's that!

  7. Just what I needed to hear this morning, having hit that 20K wall. Off to write now ~ Thanks!


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