You’re a writer if you can’t NOT write.
What makes a writer? To state the bleeding obvious, you need to get those words out. Out of your head and onto the page. You have to physically manifest your thoughts, dreams, hopes, desires, translate them into something tangible whether it’s pen on paper or keystrokes onto your computer screen.
The best of intentions won’t be enough to get you there. But the one thing I hear most of all, when people find out I’m a writer, is how many of them would love to do the same thing – create a book, poem, movie script.
Then comes the inevitable qualifier. Oh, they’d love to write, they say, but they’re too busy with work/family/life in general.
I firmly believe that everybody has a book inside them. And everybody has the ability to write. A writer is a storyteller and who hasn’t been to a dinner party or sat in a bar and regaled their friends with a story or two? And gently tweaked those stories in subsequent retellings to make them even better?
And if you’re a regular reader, you know the basics of what makes a compelling story. There are only so many types of stories, and each new one is only a variation on something that’s been told countless times before. That’s the tradition of storytelling. A writer doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel each time they sit down, they merely try to make that wheel look a little different from all the others out there.
So why aren’t more people writers, especially if they’ve have at least one interesting experience to share, let alone an interesting life?
The great unknown, for one thing. A book can be a particularly daunting thing. One hundred thousand words, two hundred thousand words. That’s scary to a lot of people. It’s scary to most writers as well.
It’s no surprise that writers, even the successful kind, are extremely conflicted about the craft of writing. Some, like Roald Dahl, have gone on record about how difficult they find it. They may even hate the act of writing. Others describe feelings of frustration or disappointment; which has as much to do with living up to their own high standards as it does to what they see as the drudgery of sitting down each day, alone in a room, to do the same thing over and over again.
That so many famous writers were alcoholics is telling. No surprise that Hunter S. Thompson is in this group. Raymond Chandler, responsible for some of the most sublimely clever prose within the strictures of the crime genre, was not only an alcoholic but a mean, nasty one at that along with being a racist, anti-Semitic misogynist to top it all off.
Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, to name just a few who crowd my bookshelves, liberally lubricated their talents in the bottle but still managed to create some of the most enduring literary classics of all time.
They had what we now call addictive personalities. There were certainly other writers – such as Baudelaire, Coleridge, Ginsberg, Huxley and Sartre – who channelled their addictive personalities into drugs.
They were addicts because they could be; it was not as socially unacceptable as such behaviour is now. It helped them deal with any personal difficulties they had and maybe it also assisted them into “the zone”, into that area that allowed their imaginations to soar and the emotions to manifest.
As much as the alcoholics and drug addicts get all the attention, a lots of writers (most? some? who knows?) don’t need or at least don’t use such stimulus. They do it cold turkey.
My first five books were non-fiction, all but one commissioned by major publishers, the last two by Random House. They all in some way were aspects of Australian history – architecture, crime fiction, music, a company history.
The good thing about writing non-fiction is you know exactly where you’re going; you have a beginning, middle and end before you write Word One.
Fiction is a whole new ballgame and very scary for anyone trying it for the first time. My first novel came out of a dare at a drunken dinner party. The next morning, it still didn’t seem like such a bad idea so I began Chapter One. Which led to Chapter Two, Chapter Three, and so forth.
Not only was it my first attempt at fiction (I won’t include the period in the mid-1980s when I produced what I’ll refer to as “adult fiction”), I wrote it from the beginning to the end.
I started out with no real idea of what I wanted to do or where I was heading. Along the way, I came up with a couple of really good characters and a setting and that led to a major plot as well as a sub-plot, and I sped through it all until the last few chapters when I was hung up on the resolution. It took a couple of weeks to get over that hurdle.
In all, the 100,000 words took about nine months. It would have been quicker but I had a couple of heart attacks in the midst, which tends to throw one’s schedule off slightly.
As a first novel, it was some hard work but a lot of fun as well. And I’d done it. I’d proved to myself that writing a novel wasn’t that difficult and maybe, with some practise and a favourable marketplace, I could make a career out of it.
Time for the next one. I love Stephen King and horror novels in general (especially those disturbing Pan horror anthologies from the 1960s). I figured why not?
So now I’m working on a horror novel. I’ve moved to Bali to work exclusively on the novel. With no distractions except the tropical weather, clear blue skies, and a swimming pool to while away the midday hours, punctuating my morning and afternoon writing sessions (my version of a stiff highball or a arm full of illicit substances; it works for me).
Living in a foreign country and forgoing family, friends and your support network in order to focus on writing isn’t a prerequisite but it’s a start. Getting rid of distractions, and being quite ruthless about it, works for those of us who are………..oh, look, a cat.
Anyway, different strokes for different folks. What works for me might not be applicable for everybody. And it gets back, after much meandering and waffling, to the original question.
What does it take to be a writer? To be cruel, it boils down to one thing. With apologies to Nike, just do it.
© words David Latta 2014