The superficial world divides writers into two categories, really – those who get published, and those who don’t. Although the internet has blurred the boundaries between professional writers and amateurs, the divide is still there. Published writers have the luxury to dedicate themselves to words for days on end, while others do it as an act of rebellion, at night, on the train-ride to work, or during breaks.
Like the protagonist of 1984, who risked his life to purchase a notebook and signed it away by filling it with words, writers sometimes find themselves huddled in a corner, crouching onto their guilty pleasure protectively, hoping that their spouse or friends won’t catch them at it. Even those of us who “come out” and courageously tell others that all we want to do is write, even we have a little voice whispering in our ears, coming back to torment us every time someone criticizes our work, or rejects it altogether. Because, secretly, we all share the same fear: that what we are pouring our very soul into might never be useful to anyone…that it might be just a waste of time.
But we are wrong. Differentiating “real” writers from the rest through the amount of money they make, the popularity of their work or even whether or not it gets published is not only inaccurate, but also an insult to what writing really is and should be: a subjective art form. As such, the words we write have an intrinsic value that goes beyond the way others perceive them. Sure, being recognized while you are alive might have its advantages – who would turn down a nice, fat check from an editor? But not getting any recognition at all is perfectly normal, and shouldn’t get you discouraged. It might just mean that, as Nietzsche wrote in Human, all Too Human, readers are just not refined or enlightened enough to be able to appreciate you.
This shouldn’t give us the license to consider ourselves “misunderstood geniuses.” It might be that some of us are, but there is also the small chance that your work might just totally and objectively suck. As I wrote in Nobody Tells This To Beginners, sometimes you have to accept that not everything you write will be good, and keep refining your “crap” until it becomes something you can be proud of.
The point is, however, to not let publishers have the last word on whether or not you are a writer. The reason? Editors are human beings and, as such, they make mistakes. Let’s no forget that Emily Dickinson, now a widely acclaimed poet, was largely ignored during her lifetime – she only published a handful of her almost 1,800 completed pieces. Other writers were even less fortunate, and were rejected so many times that they decided to self publish their work. One of the most notable examples is Marcel Proust. His masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past, wasn’t simply trashed, but utterly deviled by editor Alfred Humboldt of Ollendorf Publishing.
“My dear fellow,” wrote Humboldt, “I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.”And yet, Proust kept writing, revising his work up until his death.
We have now established that some of the artists who keep us awake at night, almost breathless from awe, were utterly alone during their lifetime.
They, like so many of us, had every reason to give up, but didn’t. Something kept them going, and that resilience – the stubborn, idealistic and wildly irrational hope of someone who has no reason to hope – that is what we read behind their words today. Those are the subtexts that so grip our subsconscious. Because a real writer pours every inch of energy into his words. Because when he writes, he doesn’t simply lay words down on paper; he becomes the page. He goes beyond the grounded reality and bends it, his illusions so strong that they would fool anyone into believing they are real; the emotions he exposes so true that readers instinctively recognize them as more fundamentally relevant than any of the words they might read on a newspaper.
So what is the Anatomy of a Writer? Which are the characteristics that turn common mortals into Prousts?
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said “you must have chaos within yourself to give birth to a dancing star.” Creativity is the daughter of chaos, because it is only when a person stops to see the world as predictable and orderly that he can discover something new, a different way of doing what has already been done a thousand times before, a solution to a problem, a story, a poem.
Most of the artists I know are extremely messy, disorganized, and, to use an Italian word I adore, “sconslusionati,” which literally means “without conclusion.” This lack of order is a double edged sword. While it enables the artist to see beyond the surface and reach into incredible possibilities that others don’t see, it also hinders him, making it sometimes almost impossible to write (or to finish his stories.) This is why it’s so essential to be able to find the eye of the storm and rest inside it. Why the eye of the storm? Because you need to be able to see all the objects, events and emotions that twirl inside it to be able to write about them, but you also have to be calm and patient enough to be able to order them in such a way that your readers will appreciate them. A chaotic person might be wildly creative, but lose themselves so much in their own train of thoughts as to not be able to create anything that others can appreciate or understand. A highly structured person, by contrast, might function perfectly in society, and might even be an eloquent writer…but they may never be able to surprise, shock and move you.
The solution is to find the perfect equilibrium between chaos and structure, to have enough chaos to give birth to a dancing star…but sufficient structure to not give birth to an alien from Mars!
3. COMPULSION TO WRITE
I once read an article which connected obsessive thinking with creativity. The article surprised me, as it was right on target. During my most creative periods, I am literally haunted by my stories. The characters accompany me through the night, greet me when I wake up, and continue developing as I shower. They follow me around, like faithful friends, whispering dialogues, suggesting plot points… I sometimes get so engrossed in my imagined reality that I walk right past my destination, or lose my way, or -rarely, but surely – run into something, like a sign post.
I mean, I’m not crazy – I don’t “hear voices” or anything of the sort. But I do sympathize with the writers who confess that they can’t put their characters to rest, that their book doesn’t seem to abandon them until it’s written. If you have ever found yourself scribbling an idea in a napkin, afraid that you will forget it, or if you have ever felt the need to write through the night, or as soon as you wake up in the morning, your fingers almost aching to get your idea onto the page… If you have ever experienced this compulsion to write, even just once in your life… Then, in that moment, you made it: you were a writer.
4. LOVE OF THE SUPERFLUOUS
When one of my friends justified his purchase of moleskine notebooks with one sentence – I love the superfluous – I didn’t know him enough to understand what he meant. At the time, I dismissed the matter with one value judgment – he was just a snobby writer. Later, however, I realized that the love of the superfluous is not born out of superficiality.
Truly great writers astound us by giving life to the most minute and apparently inconsequential of details. They talk about how a character rolls his pants up before wading into a muddy river, and that gesture might seem trivial to you at the time. But it isn’t. Because the author knows that there will be a point in which that character, whose anal orderliness is made blatant up until chapter 8, will crawl into a muddy hole, ruining his precious pants, to rescue his best friend. And the fact that he had rolled up his pants at the beginning of the novel will acquire a new significance. This attention for the minute detail is a skill that is hard to develop and, as such, is often overlooked by writers. It is precisely for this reason that you should hone it. Train yourself to focus on an object you are extremely familiar with, such as your favorite sofa, a picture of you, a gift your grandmother gave you when you were three – and try to see it, really see it. You might be surprised to find that Gustave Flaubert was right: “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.”
5. INSATIABLE APPETITE FOR STORIES
I was reading Gladwell’s Tipping Point yesterday, and was surprised to find in it the perfect description of a writer. Great writers are Connectors. When they sit next to you, they don’t just see a person. “They see possibility,” writes Gladwell. To paraphrase him, while most of us are busy trying to evaluate whether or not we should spend energy in getting to know a person, a writer is curious about everyone. Let’s take one of my friends as an example. J. is not famous, but is definitely a writer at heart. And the funny thing is that this realization occurred to me not after reading what he had written, but over dinner, as a result of a phone call.
We were at a nice Italian restaurant, ostensibly engrossed in our meals while, in reality, we were both eavesdropping on a stranger’s conversation, our forks suspended in the air and our ears raised, while our plates turned cold. That same curiosity that made us walk out of that restaurant with a hole in our stomach and our minds filled with conjectures of who the woman was talking with and why is also the reason that J. is a great storyteller. He is the type of person that will stop to talk with the homeless man everyone walks past on their way to work. The kind of person who will want to know the poor man’s entire story, and will then be so fascinated by it that he will tell all of his friends about it.
Living in the United States, I miss getting his excited phone calls about the conversation he had had with “that amazing girl” who sold newspapers on the streets to support herself as she studied Chinese, or the “incredible” story of a professor who had read a book that had changed his life, leading him to drop out of a Computer Science degree in order to study English literature. I was always astounded at J.’s almost uncanny ability to discover interesting people, and it took me some time to realize that the reason he was able to make everyone seem interesting was that he was fascinated by them. Similarly, I suspect that the reason why some complain that “people are boring” is because they never give them a chance to show how interesting they are. Anyone can surprise you, if you don’t just walk by, but actually take the time to sit down with them long enough.
That is the thing about writers: they have a way of earning your trust, of becoming not simply your friends, but your most trusted confidants. They listen, ask questions, give thoughtful advice and nod in all the right places, as if your love woes, your childhood, or whatever it is you chose to tell them, was the most interesting story they had ever heard. You know why they are so good at it? It’s because they are not feigning. They honestly do find your story fascinating. As a matter of fact, they see in it so much value that they remember and treasure it until, sure enough, you will see a nuanced version of it in one of their stories.
Note: This post has been divided into two parts. Stay tuned for Part 2, and send us your comments!
In Anatomy of a Writer, Part 2, I will explore 5 other characetristics common to great writers: Stubborness, Generosity, Vision, Humility and… the last one is a surprise. You can post your guesses and comments below!