In The Anatomy of a Writer, I argued that being a great writer does not necessarily correlate with fame, success, or even getting published. What does it mean, then, to be a writer?
In my first post, I wrote about the importance of embracing chaos, then stepping back from it to give it meaning. I also wrote about the insatiable curiosity that is common to most people who write, our passion for the details that others find trivial, and the irresistible appeal that putting our thoughts on paper has for us. Today, I will write about other characteristics that I associate with the writers I know and/or admire.
As is exemplified by Proust’s example, writers need to have a thick skin in order to keep believing in the value of their work despite the criticism they receive. If you are still skeptical about the validity of this statement, just consider the conspicuous list of bestselling authors who were initially rejected. It includes such names as Beatrix Potter (who self-published her first book), Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Rudyard Kipling, Madeline L’ Engle, Anne Frank, J.K. Rowling, Richard Bach, Stephanie Meyer and Jon Kerouac… Many of the rejection letters received by these authors are hilarious, ludicrous, or downright preposterous. If we were to listen to editors, Kipling doesn’t “know how to use the English language,” “Jonathan Livingston Seagull will never make it as a paperback,” and G.H. Wells’s War of The Worlds is “an endless nightmare.” Anne Frank’s Diary sold more than 31 million copies, and Seagull Jonathan Livingston sold more than 1 million copies in 1972 alone. But, perhaps, the examples that should be worth highlighting are the most recent ones. Stephen King’s Carrie, for instance, was rejected with the statement that stories about negative utopias “do not sell.”
Does this mean that you have to completely disregard an editor’s comments? Absolutely not. Sometimes, you can actually turn rejections into a way to improve your writing, as explained by Nathan Bransford in The Art Of Reading Rejection Letters. But don’t let rejections discourage you, and keep them into perspective. After all, editors are human beings and they, too, make mistakes.
Since I have just expounded on how a writer should not let nearsighted editors discourage them, I would like to highlight how vitally important it is to remain humble. No matter how much success we may or may not have as a writer, we must remain teachable. There is always room for improvement and, unless we are receptive of other people’s feedback, our creative energy will stop flowing, and never reach the sea of our readers. Like water, stagnant creativity is doomed to become filthy and lackluster, turning into a muddy, bacteria-invested version of itself. If you want your writing to be clear, if you want fish to be able to live in it, dolphins to make love inside it, and human beings to refresh their souls by tipping their toes underneath its surface, then your acceptance of the world around you must be even larger than the ocean.
While some writers cling to every word as if it were a life-raft, I encourage everyone of us to seek feedback, no matter how good or accomplished of a writer we think we are. You will find that it doesn’t even matter whether or not you follow everyone’s advice. You might choose to ignore 50 percent of it, or even all of it, but your subconscious will still assimilate the feedback, and your gut instinct will help you pick and choose which advice to follow and which to discard.
One of the responses to my post on Enchantment was a quote from Brenda Ueland: “Writing is not a performance, but a generosity.” Some writers responded to the quote by arguing that they write solely for their own pleasure. They don’t need anyone else to read their work. To me, these people are missing out on one of the greatest pleasures of writing: touching people’s lives, keeping them company when they can’t sleep, inspiring them, provoking them, waking their spirits when they fall into the slumber of a monotonous life.
Sure, I greatly enjoy writing for myself, and I don’t feel the urge to share every thought I put down on paper with the rest of the world. Also, I write because I love to do it. I would do it even if nobody wanted to read it, or even if some of the readers took my words and distorted them, giving them a meaning I didn’t intend.
However, I will never forget the night in which one of my stories moved my father to tears, or the first time I read my poetry out loud, and was approached by a girl who thanked me for putting her feelings into words. When others respond to my writing, my spirit somersaults (I know it’s not a word, but this is how it feels.) In these moments, nothing else matters, and even though I’m not making any money, I’m not a published author, and I’m no Proust, I still feel that I’ve been a successful writer that day.
I would like to end this section with a quote from an interview with the Chilean author Isabel Allende: “I will take the risk of offering one word to sum up, at least what I felt, about Isabel Allende. The word is generous. She is generous as a storyteller and a memoirist and as a person. She opens doors and shares herself—her thoughts and feelings—yet with the discipline of an artist. Implied is the assumption that in doing so she is showing what will heal and illumine life for others and also for herself. This generosity explains, at least in part, her worldwide popularity.”
9. BEING A “NIGHT OWL”
This one refers to the weird and, to me, somewhat unexplainable fact that so many of the writers I know seem to work best at night, when the rest of the world is asleep. Although there are ongoing debates as to which times work best for writers, and, rationally, I would argue that writing in the morning is what makes most sense, I inexplicably but inexorably find myself warming up a cup of black tea when I should be burying my head on a pillow.
I tell myself that I’m too tired to write anything that makes sense, and then I sit down in front of the screen and write, until the morning light forces my already aching eyes to close, and birds chirping themselves awake become my lullaby. The following day, I’m exhausted. I reprimand myself for staying awake, and swear that I will never, ever do it again. But we all know that these kinds of promises are made to be broken. My only consolation, then, comes from my readers, who tell me that they really liked that sentence, or that word, or that story I wrote in a sleepy-delirium. For some reason, my 4 a.m. writing is always the one that readers appreciate the most.
The reason? Maybe the silent, seemingly endless night liberates your mind from distractions, so that your reality becomes the page, and the page becomes the world. Or, to use the expression of singer Luciano Ligabue, it’s because people who are awake at night “are only half-awake, with one’s dreams always open.” Whatever the reason, being a night owl is undoubtedly a key aspect of being a writer. Unless you are a vampire. Or you understand that I’m as serious as I am awake.
Nothing in your life prepares you to be a writer, but everything in your life might.
To me, being a writer is an attitude, a way of experiencing and interpreting the world we live in. For a person, events are just that: something that happens to you. They might change your life or not. They might be forgotten or end up in your diary. Occasionally, they might even be turned into a sort of story to be shared with a friend, or a stranger sitting next to you on the airplane.
A writer uses events, and reality in general, as the spark which gives light to literary fireworks. Anything from a breakup, to cancer, to a walk around the park or a newspaper headline might get thrown into the basket of ideas and feelings that a writer draws on, more or less consciously, when sitting down in front of a blank page.
If you have ever found yourself thinking “I should write a story/poem about this!” then you have already taken a big step towards becoming a writer.
So, then, what does it mean to be a writer? Is a writer all of the things I talked about, or is this just an idealized, romanticized account of being a writer? Maybe a writer is none of these things, or, most likely, a writer is a little bit of all of these things. Like Oscar Wilde so wisely said, “the truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”
Regardless of where the truth lies, I still felt the need to write about the Anatomy of a Writer, because it’s too easy to put people who write in different boxes, and say: “these are the writers,” while “those are just amateurs.” Hopefully, even if you disagree with everything I have written up to now, you will take a second or two to reconsider your own definition of what it means to be a writer.
Writer: someone who can touch the soul of the world using only their fingertips.
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