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6 Misconceptions About Writing (continued)


Misconception # 4: Writers have something important to say.

    There’s that phrase again: Writers have. In our earlier discussion, what writers have is time; now, what they have is something important to say. This notion is a doubled-edged sword. The first edge—that writers have something—suggests that writers already possess something whole and complete in itself, before any word is written. Since this something (call it an idea, concept, character, emotion, story, vision) is already fully formed, the writer’s job becomes simply putting this something into words.
    Put into words. This phrase says much about how the writing process is often perceived. Put into words suggests that language is merely the container, the holding bin, into which something is placed. If I just had a great story to tell, so this theory goes, I could tell it. If I could just work out the kinks in this idea, the hard part would be done; then all I’d have to do is write it.
    When we buy into this notion, we rob ourselves of the permission to begin without knowing exactly where we’re going, we rob the something of its chance to grow and change, and we rob language of its chance to help shape and reshape the something. When we buy into this notion, words become powerless. They hold no sway. They are merely the box into which we place our already perfectly complete thought, story or vision.
    Is it any wonder we despair? Some of us, having decided in advance that our words will never be able to carry the weight of what we want to say, never write the first word. And even those who do manage to break through the wall of initial doubt often get no farther than a first draft. We have failed to capture our grandfather, the yellow kitchen, the black dog. We haven’t written the poem that seemed so clear in our mind or the story that appeared in our dream. If only I could find the right words, we think, as if the dictionary were at fault. Or we blame ourselves: We are just not up to the task. Someone else would be able to put into words this vision I have. We may begin to question whether what we have to say is worth the paper it’s written on.
    Which leads us to the other edge of this double-sided sword: Writers have something important to say. What do we mean by important? Well, it depends on whom you ask:
Tolstoy, in What is Art?, suggests that in addition to its other qualities, art is a new idea which is important to mankind. Yikes, I think. That’s one big shoe to fill. Maybe I shouldn’t even try.
    Commercial publishers would have us believe we have something important to say if someone is willing to buy it.
    And some writers believe what they have to say is important simply because something of import—by which they mean unusual, strange, horrible, or noteworthy—happens to them. But if this is the case, why do we abandon, often after only a few pages, a book written by someone who sailed around the world or broke an Olympic record or murdered her husband or had affairs with three presidents, yet keep going back to that same little story on our shelf, the one about an old woman who does nothing more than take a walk to town?
     “Wait a minute,” you might be saying. “I’ve read ‘A Worn Path,’ and you’re not playing fair. Eudora Welty could write about a shoelace and make it seem important.” Well, maybe you’re right. Maybe a great writer can nudge a seemingly trivial something to the ranks of greatness merely through the force of her words.
    Or maybe, just maybe, the process is a group effort, a three-headed committee composed of Eudora, a something, and the words. Maybe no one is totally in charge, maybe they all just sit around the table and listen to one another. Really listen. The something talks for a while, then language comes in and mixes things up, then Eudora comes in to smooth out the wrinkles, but while she’s talking, the something pipes up again, and this goes on all morning and into the afternoon, but by the time the three of them knock off for the day, a plan is in motion. And if they keep at it, by the next day (or week, or year), the business will be accomplished. Perhaps not in the manner any of the three might have imagined beforehand. Still, the work gets done. And it’s none too shabby, they agree, walking out the door together, turning off the light. None too shabby at all.

Misconception # 5: Writers publish their work and get famous or rich or both.

    When people ask me what I do for a living, I try to change the subject. If they persist, I tell them that I teach writing, judge writing contests, edit manuscripts, and give lectures and readings. These are not lies; I do all these things. They are, in fact, what I do for a living—that is, to pay the rent and health insurance. What I do for a life is write, and that’s the part that’s hard to explain. I feel the way Louis Armstrong must have felt when he was asked to define jazz. “If you have to ask,” he answered, “nothing I say’s gonna help.”
    One of the problems with admitting that you’re a writer is that people invariably want to know what you write. Or maybe they don’t want to know, but at least they ask. It doesn’t work to answer “words.” Sometimes, if we’re lucky and if we keep putting words on the page, poems or stories or novels or essays eventually emerge, but we don’t really write them. What we write is one word, then the next, and the next. Seen this way, writing is a very democratic pursuit. It’s like the old line about how the president puts on his pants: one leg at a time, just like you, just like me. Seen this way, a Nobel laureate writes the same way a first grader does: one word at a time.
    But as I said earlier, this answer doesn’t go over well at cocktail parties. So you mumble something like “poems,” hoping to put an end to it.
    “Oh really,” they say. “What kind?”
    Now you’ve done it. What are you supposed to answer? Long poems? Short? Serious? Free verse? Poems about wilted lettuce, dying dogs, rivers? “Very bad poems,” I might answer right now, thinking of the draft I’m currently struggling with.
    The conversation can go anywhere from here, but usually it moves in one of these directions:
    “My wife (or daughter or son or second cousin) writes poems too. It’s a great hobby, don’t you think?”
    “Doesn’t anyone believe in rhyme anymore?”
    “I have this great idea for a poem. All I have to do is write it.”
    Or my personal favorite, “Would I know your work?” Another Louis Armstrong question: If they have to ask, nothing you say’s gonna help. At this point in the conversation, it’s probably best just to shake your head No and try once again to change the subject. At this point, it doesn’t really matter whether you’ve published five well-reviewed books, one recipe in your church newsletter, or nothing at all. Though the questioner probably means well and is only trying to make polite gestures, it’s hard after one of these conversations not to feel devalued. A man at a dinner party once suggested that, since no one really reads the kind of things I write, maybe I should write a novel instead. I didn’t tell him that I had done just that—that in fact I’d written three and that I’d had a great time writing them and one of them was pretty good if I do say so myself, though the other two, well...
    I didn’t tell him, because what he seemed to be saying wasn’t that I should write a novel, but that I should publish the kind of novel that lots of people would read, a book that would make oodles of money and/or make me famous. The man was a nice guy, probably a good husband and father, maybe even someone with a passion for painting or gardening or woodworking or sculpting, who pursued his passion privately, intensely, the way I pursue writing.
    Even so, I felt it best not to tell him about the novels. When we stand outside a process, when we’re on the outside looking in, it’s impossible to imagine what goes on inside. The man was on the outside looking in, and, corny as this might sound, my memory of writing the unpublished novels was just too precious to share with him. Only I knew what those years had meant to me. What if he brushed those years aside as if they were so much lint? I wanted to keep the memory of each writing day inside me, the way I keep each unpublished essay and poem, even the most flawed, warm and safe within its folder or box. To those standing outside the process, only writing that gets published and makes the writer famous and/or rich, matters. To writers living within the process, every word matters, even if no eyes but our own ever read those words.

Misconception # 6: Writers are smarter, more sensitive, and more creative than other people.

    Hm. This is a tricky one. Since, for the moment at least, I am the writer and you are the reader, I would very much like for you to believe this. But I have to admit that it just isn’t so—in my case, or in the case of most of the writers I’ve met.
    Let’s start with the intelligence issue. When you judge intelligence solely by academic criteria, writers don’t always fare well. Most writers, so research studies show, were B , not A students; my educational experience bears this out. Maybe this is because writers tend to be more interested in questions than in answers. Granted, it takes a keen mind to ask interesting questions, but this doesn’t mean that writers are necessarily more brainy or intellectual than other people. Perhaps they are simply more curious, less afraid of venturing into unknown areas, and more willing, as Proust said, to “become stupid before the canvas.”
    As for the claim that writers are more sensitive than the rest of us, while it’s true that some writers are sensitive people, the same can be said for non-writers. Sensitivity is a human trait, not necessarily a writerly one, and it manifests itself in any number of ways that have nothing to do with writing. Perhaps the only area is which writers are more sensitive than other people is in the area of language. Just as musicians are sensitive to sound, painters to color and sculptors to form, writers are sensitive to words.
    When people tell me they’re just not creative enough to write, I usually answer, “There is no such thing as a creative person. There is only the created act.” This is not my original idea; it comes from Rollo May’s The Courage to Create. “Creativity,” May writes, “is basically the process of making, or bringing into being.” As such, “creativity can be seen only in the act.”
    This theory may get your hackles up. You might argue that this just isn’t so, that creative people do indeed exist. You might cite your nephew, who, in your opinion, is one of the most creative people on the planet. “Okay,” I’d say, “I’ll go along with that. But first tell me how you know he’s creative. What evidence do you have?” For without evidence of something made, something brought into being, there can be no creation. Even the God of Genesis wasn’t creative until he created the heavens and the earth. Your nephew, or mine, isn’t creative simply because he daydreams a lot, likes weird movies, or has fluorescent tricolored hair. Unless, of course, his hair is a created act, a work of art.
    Those of us who aspire to art—writers, painters, sculptors, designers—like to think of ourselves as creative individuals. The truth is, we are creative only because we create. Even if our creation never comes into the public eye, even if it never reaches completion in terms of what the world considers complete, nevertheless it is the process of its making that makes us creative. And only that process.
    How does one become creative? One creates. What freedom exists in that thought, what possibility! Yet, as our parents warned us as they handed over the car keys, along with freedom comes responsibility. If creativity resides only within the process of making, we must toss aside the excuse that we aren’t creative enough; we’ll have to find a new excuse not to create. But if, on the other hand, we’re still basking in the haloed memory of some grandfather or teacher telling us how creative we are, we must ask ourselves what we’re waiting for. The playing field’s been leveled; we’re all chosen for the team.

Excerpted from Write Your Heart Out