Thursday, September 27, 2012

What Makes a Writer a Writer?

As secondary schools push in the direction of the ever-present educational catch-phrase "21st century education," I find myself speaking often about the importance of a traditional English curriculum and all that the subject teaches and will continue to teach regardless of what the future holds. With these discussions, I've found myself thinking about writing and its importance to me and others who make the literary arts a way of life.

Many of us say we "need" to write. (Last week, I pleaded for 90 minutes a day.) So what is it, then, that is so addictive about the act of moving a pen left to right across a paper or tapping keys and seeing black letters appear where before there were none?

Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down The Bones, urges writers to "use your senses as an animal does." She's speaking of having "every sense alive." Raymond Carver was once asked what it takes to be a writer. He replied with something along the lines of, The writer is the person who walks down the street, sees a discarded shoe, and stops to stare at it. Think of how many times each of us has seen a shoe (or a box or a bottle) beside the road. Did you stop and look at it? Maybe. Maybe not. But what Goldberg and Carver are getting at goes beyond the writer's observation skills. It's more than that. It speaks to the writer's genuine interest in the world around him or her.

Consider this statement by Ernest Hemingway, which, coincidentally, I stumbled upon this week: "I like to listen," the great author said. "I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen." I have always believed that if perception is reality, then we are what we say. And I take this adage to heart in my work, relying on dialogue to convey characters and drive plot lines. (The reason for this probably stems from my dyslexia; I digest whatever I hear.)

I don't think how one writes matters. Some friends tell me they write the whole book straight through; others say they edit as they go. Some write the whole draft in longhand; others wouldn't dream of doing that. The similarity we all share is need to do so, the inexplicable drive to see and hear the world around us and then to stop and retell it by putting one sentence after another, smiling through it all.

This desire can't be taught. An addiction? An obsession? I think it's either in your DNA or is not.







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