Oh, You Mean 'Writer'. With a Capital W
Another chapter from "Writing While Old"
I have time on my hands now, but—wouldn’t you know—my mind is still all a-jumble. ‘Widow’s brain’ they’re calling it, but I don’t know. It feels familiar somehow. Like I’ve been here before.
So since I’m having a hard time creating anything new right now, I’ve been hauling out some of my old stuff, hoping to revive it and actually do something with it. This is a chapter from a manuscript I still hope to turn into an honest-to-goodness book. The working title is ‘Writing While Old’, but that could change and probably will.
I started this book as a light-hearted, humorous guide for old people whose families are bugging them to write down their life histories, but, after some workshopping, I realized there are old people who still yearn to be published writers, not just chroniclers of family histories. They need a broader focus. Then I realized that much of what I’m promoting on these pages will apply to anyone, not just my peers, the ‘elderly’.
So there’s my dilemma now—how should I go at this? If I insist this book is for old people, I’ve lost a big readership chunk. But if I write it for everybody, chances are it’ll get lost in that vast ‘How to Write Good’ crowd already on the bookshelves.
So it sits. Until I look at it again and see a way I can exploit it! Right here, in my own space! With my own peeps!
Oh, You Mean ‘Writer’. With a Capital W
Chutzpah may get you in the door, but it’s skill that finds you a seat. – Mona
(This sign hung over my desk for years. I came up with it around the time I moved into my office upstairs.)
So here it is. Somewhere around Chapter Four:
But now we’re getting serious. You’re expecting me to come up with some ideas on how to get your writing published, because apparently there were some hints somewhere that we would get to that.
I’ve been dreading this part—not because I don’t want to talk about writing the kinds of things that will get published. No, I can do that. It’s because here’s where you’re going to need a pep talk and the only way I can think to give you the one you’re going to need is to tell you a personal story.
A story I’ve never told another living soul. Ever.
It was the summer of 1970 and I was 33 years old. I had been writing the odd thing here and there but if Being a Writer was lurking around somewhere in my head it hadn’t revealed itself, at least to the best of my knowledge. (Note: Never use “hadn’t revealed itself, at least to the best of my knowledge” if you can help it. See how it stopped the story dead? Who talks like that? In fact, let’s just chuck that whole sentence and start again.)
It was summer, 1970. My husband and I had taken our three kids up north for a week’s stay at his cousin’s cabin. The cabin was small but there were two bedrooms, a screened sleeping porch, two fold-out sofas and a low open loft wide enough for a half-dozen sleeping bags.
It was a real family affair—seven adults and six kids—all under one roof. In a cabin with one bathroom. For a week.
One day, while the men were out fishing, we women took the kids into town for ice cream. There was a magazine rack near the drug store soda fountain and once we got the kids settled, we went to look for magazines to take back to the cabin. I spotted it instantly—a magazine called “Writer’s Digest”.
I was stunned. I never knew an entire magazine for writers even existed, yet here it was, on a drug store rack in a tiny town in the Upper Peninsula, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, as if any minute now a writer would just happen by and find it and buy it and take it home.
Unless. . .
. . .Unless it meant that any ordinary person could buy it and read it and enter into the secret world of writing and maybe even learn how to become a writer.
I had to have it. I knew I had to have it, but I couldn’t let the others in on my secret. I had only just at that very moment decided in my heart of hearts that I was going to become a writer. A writer. I was excited and embarrassed (who did I think I was?) and oh, I was terrified! I grabbed a Ladies Home Companion and jammed the offending magazine inside. I hung back until the others had paid for their things and headed outside and then I slipped the Writer’s Digest out of the Ladies Home Companion just long enough to pay for them both.
On the ride home I kept trying to glance at the writer’s magazine without taking it out of the LHC, but I was riding in the back with a bunch of sugar-shocked kids who, even if they’d had a spot of their own, wouldn’t have been inclined to stay in it.
Back at the cabin there wasn’t a place I could find where there wasn’t a warm body. I could spend a few minutes in the bathroom (the only bathroom, I’ll remind you again) but no longer, not with that crowd. It was the longest week of my life, but even without thoroughly reading that magazine, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind: Something radical just happened and my life was never going to be the same.
(No, I didn’t become rich and famous—as you might have noticed. But I did become a writer.)
Maybe you’ve had the same feeling—a weird stomach-flutter when suddenly you get it that writing and Being a Writer are two different things. Well, welcome to the club, but do me a favor: When someone asks you why you write, please, please don’t say, “Because I must.” Sleeping is a must, eating is a must, bowel movements are a must—but writing? You could go your whole life without actually writing and you would still survive. You write because you want to—maybe because you desperately want to—but not because you must.
So now that that’s out of the way, we’ll go on. (I’ve just taken a lot of the pressure off. You can thank me later.)
Let’s talk about talent and whether writing can be taught. Writing well enough to be understood can indeed be taught. You probably began learning to write coherent sentences in the First grade. But learning to write the kinds of things perfect strangers would actually want to spend time reading takes some real dedication.
Talent is something else again. The first definition of talent is “a special natural ability”. You either have it or you don’t, but even without it you can be a writer. That’s what you need to remember. You cannot buy, steal, or manufacture innate talent, but you can get good enough at your craft to satisfy both your readers and you.
You might not think so now, but I’m here to convince you. You bought this book (You did buy it, right?) because you’re old, or you think you are, and now you’re thinking maybe you could actually write stuff. I’ve been there, though I was much younger than either of us are right now.
When I was much younger, I thought it was now or never. Then, when I was younger, I thought it was now or never. Then, when I was only slightly younger, I thought I should write this book. So I did. One page at a time. Because that’s how it’s done.
And that’s how you’re going to do it, too.
Now turn the page.
I mean it.
Turn the page!
So what do you think? Would you read this book? Why? Why not? Go ahead, I can take it.
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