Are You a Writer?

Being a writer in the South has its special miseries, which include isolation, madness, tics, amnesia, alcoholism, lust, and loss of ordinary powers of speech. One may go for days without saying a word. – Walker Percy

When I first made a serious commitment to writing, the books for writers were pretty strict – if you want to be a real writer, they said, you have to put butt to chair every single day, even if it means you get up at 5 a.m. to do so. No excuses. No whining. A writer writes, and if you aren’t writing, you are not really a writer.

It felt daunting, this role of writer. You had to be unforgivingly dedicated to it, but I had children and a part-time job. And yet, Tillie Olsen managed it. As the New York Times noted in her obituary in 2007, she was “a working mother starved for time to write, . . . Her first published book, Tell Me a Riddle (1961), contained a short story, ‘I Stand Here Ironing,’ in which the narrator painfully recounts her difficult relationship with her daughter and the frustrations of motherhood and poverty.” And yet, she ended up with “an influential body of work.” I love her work. And surely, if she could find the time to write, so could I – if I really wanted to be a writer.

Then, in 1986, almost overnight, the definition of a writer changed, when Natalie Goldberg published Writing Down the Bones. Instead of a grueling manual about style, rules, and commitment, Goldberg’s book – written in rapidfire, short chapters, celebrated freewriting exercises and made writing a fun exploration. Read a chapter, get inspired, try a writing exercise – 10 minutes tops. And with it went the overwhelming guilt that you weren’t committed enough to your vocation. Write when you can, about anything, get with friends and share your writing, go to a little café and eat cookies while you write.

No more living by the Red Smith quote, “Writing is easy, all you do sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Yea! We’re all writers. I loved Natalie Goldberg, because she made me feel so much better about myself. Writing was more of a state of mind then a grueling task. As the Canadian novelist, Morley Callaghan, said, “There is only one trait that marks the writer. He is always watching. It’s a kind of trick of mind and he is born with it.” If that was the definition, I’d always been a writer.

But it’s now 2012, and once again, there has been a shift in attitude. As James Michner noted, “Many people who want to be writers don’t really want to be writers. They want to have been writers. They wish they had a book in print.” So, after our lovefest with thinking about writing, but not actually spending much time at our craft, we have learned only too well that if we want to be serious writers, we must make it a priority. We’ve come full circle. Writing well and getting published means putting in the hours – some people say (Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers) it takes a good 10,000 hours to excel at any pursuit. And that means butt to chair. Maybe not every morning at 5 a.m., but a steady, regular commitment – though you can fudge a little and count the 20 minutes in your show when you deeply contemplating some aspect about plot, characterization or setting for your novel! Enough – get right back to your chair!

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