I just finished John Gardner’s book, On Becoming a Novelist. Gardner has the nuts and bolts of being a novelist down: Write, find your voice, struggle and slave, give up dreams of becoming famous. More importantly, he covers the creative process involved in becoming a writer.
The most sound advice Gardner gives to the prospective writer is simply to write. Write anything. It’s not science or magic. While he’s concerned with the processes involved in writing novels, a heartless and difficult process that one must sacrifice nearly every other earthly endeavor to, he deals broadly with the act of writing. Of course, he admits that a writer must make a living but cautions that writing, in and of itself, probably will never yield a satisfying living.
All my life, I only wanted to be a writer. I conceded to a number of other pressures for a long time. I heard from friends and family that I’d never be a writer. I couldn’t compete. I’d never make a living. I even had writing teachers in college, one in particular, who told me directly that I should give up the writing business and find a profession that paid well and provided me a regular routine.
I believed all that crap but still wrote thousands of pages, notes, poems, and letters. I missed the most important lesson a writer can learn: writing is a reason to write. Nothing more. I can’t fault my teachers. I was, at the time, drunk much of the time. I put minimal effort into writing for those classes. I fell into the myths of writing. I have to be struck with the magic. I’m a struggling artist. Hemingway wrote when he was drunk (which he certainly was not) and the great writers wrote only when they felt the creative impulse.
It took many years for me to understand the processes of writing and publishing. I found out, again and again, that nothing comes from a bout of drinking with pen in hand. All I ever produced on a bender was gobbledygook. I wrung my hands and wondered when fate would smile on me. After I got over the drunken inspiration bunk, I wrote and wrote a lot. I slaved away. But I hadn’t yet become a writer.
My efforts at publishing brought only rejection slips. After I received a rejection, I would pull back my efforts and concentrate again on producing pieces, long and short, that went into a pile. I never really produced a piece that would stand the light of publication. But I tried. I slaved away. I wrote when I had a chance and often when I didn’t, stealing away moments from responsibilities for time at the typewriter.
All those years of writing are a blur to me. I can only find a few manuscripts from my time at the typewriter, only a few of the many thousands of pages of drivel I produced. They are mostly embarrassing. There are more thousands of pages that I’ve lost to changes in technology. I moved from a typewriter to a computer in the early 1990s. Those floppy drives are all gone now, and those that I have I cannot convert to modern devices. Not that it would matter. Maybe some ideas are worth salvaging, but the writing itself would do better in the trashcan than on sheets of dead trees.
Outside of a couple of poems and a few college newspaper articles, I never got anything published.
That all changed when I took off for my walk to Montana in 1995. After much effort and great strain, I secured a column in PitchWeekly where I would publish bi-weekly articles for five months of the trip. I was thrilled. I remember well the first check I cashed that came to me as a result of my writing. It was a dream come true. Maybe all those years of slaving away in the dark paid off. I had some concrete approval of my effort.
But that wasn’t the end of it. I had become a writer only by dint of hard work and perseverance. I quit worrying about what I thought people thought of my work and started producing work just for the pleasure and reward of producing it. That doesn’t mean that I forgot I was working for audiences. Those audiences remained part of my thinking and writing. But I stopped putting myself and my own critique into the shoes of imaginary groups of people who I thought would never accept my work.
That is the conundrum of writing for me. I had to forget the audience, or, rather, I had to stop being the audience and be the writer. On the other hand, many times I am the only audience for my writing. The writing has to satisfy me.
One thing that Gardner talks a great deal about is the mystical space that the writer enters when he or she is on their game. It’s a place where the characters and the action take over the writer’s mind. They stop worrying about words, audience, theme, and structure and just write. While many struggle to enter that sacred space, many just keep writing whether they enter it or not.
My good friend Eddy Harris emphasizes when he and I talk about writing. I complain, Eddy, I want to become a writer. How do I get published more? If I write and no one sees it, was it worth the effort. Eddy’s answer to all this is to write. Just keep writing. Give up the idea that writing has to have a reason, that an essay has to conform to some preset and academic structure. Just sit down and see where it goes.
That is the secret. Keep writing. Write when you have no drive or creative impulse. More importantly, an adept writer practices and can trigger that state of mind of writing. Sit down and look at that empty page. Put some words on it. See what comes of it. Repeated enough, the impulse will come almost of its own. But don’t depend on it. Write. Write. Write. Much of what I write will be drivel. But it’s exercise. It’s flexing the muscles so they stay fit. If I’m lucky, as I am today, the creative state of mind will come. But it’s definitely not coming if I don’t put myself into place.
That’s where these essays come from. I have to write. I don’t feel I’ve done my job as a writer unless I’ve written a thousand words in a day. Things get in the way. I’m tired. Family and work responsibilities take my time. I find that I write best in the afternoon, after I’ve gotten over the morning sleepies and have had a nap. Then, the day really begins. I sit down to that empty page. I see what happens.
Sometimes, I write about a subject that’s been bugging me all day. Every now and then, the writing impulse starts of its own and I have nothing to write about until I put those first tentative words on a page. I start and delete and start again. After enough times, the gears engage and I’m off and running.
I don’t believe that writing about writing is much of a topic for an essay. Except for today. I’m trying, even as you read this, to figure myself out. What is it that drives me to write? That lifelong obsession, perhaps, is behind the impulse. Maybe it’s something else. Who cares?
Whatever it is, I have it today. I can only hope that the same kind of impulse takes your fancy, drives you to do whatever it is that you do. For me, its writing, the sheer joy of watching this page full with words.