It’s been several weeks since my last piece, but my time lately has been an odd mixture of being legitimately busy and struggling with writer’s block. The struggle continues as I’m typing this, really. I’m usually fairly certain of what I want to say when I sit down to write, but that sense of knowing has been quite absent lately. Of course any writer has dealt with this at one time or another, but it’s caused me to wonder whether my approach to it, my combination of attitude and actual response, is telling of whether I can actually call myself a writer.
Logan and I had a brief discussion about this a few days ago when he asked me “What makes one a writer?” The answer I formed did not describe me, and it quickly showed me where I am lacking, or at least where I think of myself as lacking. The problem is there is no universal blanket ideal covered by the word “writer.” People write successfully with drastically different styles, approaches, and attitudes when it comes to the activity of writing. So even though I answered Logan’s question as best I could, I knew that perhaps I wasn’t being gracious with myself. Perhaps my answer was more of what I thought a writer should be/do in order to get the work done, which really might just be a commentary on what I think I should be doing to get the work done.
That said, I’m still convinced that there are some traits or habits that writers, at least the ones who should call themselves writers, have. I admit that what I’m about to say may not apply to you, reader, if you call yourself a writer. Just chalk it up to the internal monologue I’m dealing with around the subject, and know that I’m probably still trying to figure out the answer by working it out here and now. Also know that what I’m referencing here is more of a big-picture musing than specific/organized thoughts on the subject. If that’s what you’re interested in, read Stephen King’s On Writing. Matter of fact, read it regardless of what you’re interested in; it’s that good.
The first trait that came time mind is two-fold: that a writer will have both a desire to write and actual words to express that desire when he/she sits down to do so. This is not true all the time, of course. No one person can constantly be the most prolific or have complete mastery of both thought and language all the time. It’s a bit much to ask, even of the greats. Writer’s block is a known concept for a reason, after all. Still, it seems that those who care about writing – as an expression, as art, as a craft – possess both the need and the general means to do the work.
I realize that’s a bit conceptual and abstract, which is why the second trait I sense makes one a writer is highly practical. Tied for importance with the desire to write and the skill/insight/intelligence/wit/etc. to do so is that one actually sits down and writes every day. It doesn’t really matter if what you write every day is material good enough to make it to a second draft or on to public viewing after that. What matters is to exercise, to practice, and weed the surplus of material for what’s usable.
A few weeks ago I attended Neil Gaiman’s reading/signing event in Nashville. Listening to a master of the craft talk about what his own process and career is enough to make you want to pack it up and go home, but it also provides some insight into how great material can emerge from just putting one’s head down and doing the work. Gaiman has stories to tell, so he plows through and writes. He mentioned how his latest novel, Ocean at the End of the Lane, began as a short story to his wife, but kept changing and growing as he sat down day after day, putting pen to paper and making a habit of the task. He even mentioned his personal tradition of writing with a different color of ink each day to keep track of progress. Like Gaiman, those with stories to tell should be strengthening the mental muscle needed to express them, writing and reading because they must to make things right within themselves and their world. Unlike Gaiman, most of us won’t be able to do so with such mastery, but that’s not the point. Writers write to tell the stories that rest within and yearn to be told without.
I couldn't write anything for two months because life and work are busy, and 60% of the time I procrastinate all the time. Give me a break. Give yourself a break. To get out of the rut, I wrote this thing about writing. Now that it’s done I’ll try to put my head down and write, but don't count on it.
Sorry, Neil Gaiman. At least I wrote this.