What Makes a Real Writer?

Stacey, who follows Write Through It and blogs at Diary of a Ragamuffin, posed this question: “What makes one a real ‘writer’?”

She added:

My reason for asking:  After 15 years of teaching, I decided to change careers and have begun a job as a reporter for my small-town newspaper (that is owned by a not-so-small-town corporation).  They knew I had no journalism experience when they hired me.  After four  months, I’m beginning to wonder if just anyone could do the job I do.

I’m not sure if what I do each day is what I had hoped it would be.  Often there is not enough time to write reflectively, and when there is, there’s no one qualified to critique it (in my opinion).

The answer is that there’s no answer, but you know I’m not going to stop there, right?

First off, I worked eight years for a small-town newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times, in a succession of overlapping capacities: proofreader, features editor, features writer, theater reviewer, copyeditor. Reporting wasn’t my forte, but I did a little of that, mostly covering stories when no “real” reporter was available.

So I’m here to assure Stacey: The job you do can’t be done by just anyone, or by just any writer either. The fact that you’re wondering probably means that you’re good at it. You’ve got the knack. You learn fast. You’re able to apply your experience in other jobs to your journalism job.

Been there, done that. I wasn’t a journalist either when I got drafted to fill in for an editorial typesetter who was going on sick leave. I was scared to death I’d screw up, but I needed the work. I could type, I could proofread, I could write, and I had several years’ editorial experience. Short version: I loved it, I was good at it, and pretty soon the paper hired me as a part-time proofreader.

The tricky thing about job description “writer” is that it covers so many different kinds of writing. Reporter. Novelist. Columnist. Essayist. Poet. Diarist. Blogger. Biographer. Academic. Copywriter. Technical writer. And so on and on. No writer does all of them. No writer I’ve ever met wants to do all of them.

I know some crackerjack journalists who won’t cop to being writers. In their minds, writers write books, or fiction, or literary criticism. What writers don’t do is write for newspapers. You see the paradox here? If real writers don’t write for newspapers, then the writing in newspapers isn’t real writing.

Of course it is. If it isn’t, what the hell is it?

That's me, long before I knew what an editor was.

That’s me, long before I knew what an editor was.

In my teens and twenties, I assumed that a real writer had to know grammar and punctuation backwards and forwards and be a world-class speller besides. So I developed those skills. It wasn’t until I got a job as an editor in the publications office of a big nonprofit that I realized that in the real world these skills made me an editor. I hadn’t even known what an editor was. Some editorial skills belong in every writer’s toolkit, but you don’t have to be an editor to be a real writer.

Poets & Writers is a venerable organization that publishes a bimonthly magazine of the same name. Doesn’t the name imply that category “poets” isn’t included in category “writers”? It does to me. Plenty of poets either don’t call themselves writers or are semi-apologetic when they do: “I just write poetry. I’m not a real writer.”

Same deal as with journalists: If what poets write isn’t writing, what is it? And if the people who write it aren’t writers, what are they?

About her journalism job Stacey noted: “Often there is not enough time to write reflectively, and when there is, there’s no one qualified to critique it.”

This is true. Journalism means writing to deadlines, and deadlines don’t stand around waiting for the writer to get it perfect.

Deadlines don’t wait for editors either. Accuracy is more important than a perfectly crafted sentence. Spell a kid’s name wrong and her parents and grandparents will remember it forever.

Me, checking the boards at the Martha's Vineyard Times. You can tell it was back in the Pleistocene because the paste-up was pre-digital. October 1993.

Me, checking the boards at the Martha’s Vineyard Times. You can tell it was back in the Pleistocene because the paste-up was pre-digital. October 1993.

Working for the newspaper made me a better writer and a better editor in more ways than I can count. I learned I could write and edit with phones ringing off the hook and people bringing me press releases 12 hours after deadline. I learned that endings don’t have to be perfect because the last two or three inches of a story would often be lopped off when a late ad came in. I learned that writers who can turn out prose like yard goods may write sloppy sentences but they sure come in handy when a scheduled story doesn’t show or an ad gets pulled. I learned that in the work of novice writers the lead paragraph is often buried a third of the way down. I learned that I can turn out a coherent theater review even when I haven’t a clue what the play was about. (It was Beckett’s Happy Days, in case you’re wondering.)

I learned that “good enough” often is good enough, and it’s actually pretty damn good, though for sure you could do better at a writers’ retreat. For a congenital perfectionist like me this was huge.

So what makes someone a “real writer”?

Marge Piercy nailed it in “For the Young Who Want To”:

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

 

That’s the last verse. Read the whole thing. Read it often. You don’t have to be young.

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Listen to Those Blocks

Creative blocks in rearrangement mode

Creative blocks in rearrangement mode

Ever notice how most of the stuff you learn about writing is stuff you already know?

I’m not talking primarily about grammar, punctuation, spelling, and all the nuts-and-bolts basics. I’m talking about the “how to keep going” part.

Last winter the novel I was working on, The Squatters’ Speakeasy, wasn’t coalescing or developing any momentum. I wouldn’t say I was blocked exactly, but the writing sure got sludgy. I procrastinated a lot before I sat down to write, and fidgeted a lot when I got there.

I also started this blog, and wrote an essay about a controversial statue that was in the news at the time. As I blogged back in April, in “Course Correction”:

 When I got up in the morning, I couldn’t wait to sit down in my chair and start writing. I finished the essay. I kept going with the blog. Whenever I thought about waking Squatters from its winter snooze, I was overcome by an irresistible urge to play endless games of Spider solitaire.

Procrastination was trying to tell me something. Finally I got the message. I put Squatters aside. About a year before I’d written a scene about a dog named Wolfie, a kid named Glory, and Shannon, a character from my first novel, The Mud of the Place. It didn’t fit in Squatters, so I put it aside. Now I pulled it back onto my lap and had another look. My imagination woke up.

Long story short: This blog now has more than a thousand followers. The novel, working title: Wolfie, passed the 50,000-word mark three days ago.

Here comes the bit about how writers keep learning what we already know.

Or, to put it in a slightly less flattering light: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” However, for some strange reason, it’s always easier to catch your friends doing the same thing over and over again than it is to realize that you’re up to your old tricks again.

Who, me?

Short version: My other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, was wilting. Running out of steam. I was thinking of wrapping it up, or at least putting it in the indefinite deep freeze. At the same time, there were so many things I wanted to write about that I was thinking of starting another blog.

Sheesh. When I type that, it looks so obvious. I really must have been nuts or in denial or just plain dense not to see that I could do the writing I wanted to do in From the Seasonally Occupied Territories.

If you’re curious about the longer version, you can read it here.

Writers talk about writer’s blocks and procrastination all the time. Most of us have at least a passing acquaintance with both. Many of us have had long-term relationships with one or the other. We dread them, we hate them, we do endless rituals to keep them at bay.

I’m here to remind you — because I know you know this already — that often the blocks and the procrastination are trying to tell you something. Sometimes the back-seat driver is right: Either you’ve missed a turn or you’ve taken one you didn’t want.

The road you want is the one that keeps your pen moving across the paper or your fingers on the keyboard.

Creative blocks, rearranged

Creative blocks, rearranged

A Surfeit of Subplots

While procrastinating thinking about doing research on plot the other day, I came upon the Writers’ Workshop website. They’re in Oxford, England. They offer a variety of editorial services for pay. There’s also a lot of great free stuff on their website. I landed on this particular page.

Under the heading “What Does a Perfect Plot Look Like?” it outlines the plot and subplots of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. (They spelled Lizzie Bennet’s surname with two t‘s — Jane Austen didn’t — but let this be a lesson to you: solid work can survive one copyeditorial goof, or even two or three.)

Squatters’ Speakeasy, the novel I set aside, is all sprawl and no momentum. It’s the ocean with no trace of a Gulf Stream. I took out my Squatters notebook, grabbed a pen, and tried to outline its plot.

Subplots

Subplots

What I discovered was that Squatters’ Speakeasy has no fewer than seven subplots but no sign of a main plot anywhere. It’s drowning in subplots. Maybe one of the subplots is really the main plot, but at the moment none of them is jumping up and down and yelling “Me, me, me!”

Wolfie, in marked contrast, has three plot threads going, and I’m engrossed in all of them:

  • Shannon tries to find a new home for a dog in trouble, assisted by Glory, an 11-year-old neighbor.
  • Glory is being sexually abused by her stepfather.
  • Glory’s biological father is using social media to make contact with her.

If you ask me what this book is about, I’ll rattle off something like “Shannon gets pulled into rescuing first a dog and then a girl, and the dog and the girl help rescue each other.” Ask me what Squatters’ Speakeasy is about and I’ll grab hold of one subplot and mumble for 10 minutes. What Squatters does have is plenty of raw material. It’s waiting for me to plot it into some kind of coherent structure.

Travvy looks for a plot

Travvy looks for a plot

Who’s Driving This Bus?

I’ve been thinking a lot about characters lately. Fictional characters, particularly the fictional characters that show up on the paper in front of me. They rise in the compost that is my mind, slide down my arm and into my pen, and manifest in colored ink on a lined white page.

No doubt about it: writing is weird.

Essential tools for character development

Essential tools for character development

“Write what you know,” say the sages. Characters are forever showing me how much I don’t know. No sooner does my protagonist set off down a footpath than I’m scrambling for the name of the pretty blue flower she sees over there. She’s an artist and a website designer. I know more about pigment and graphics than I did when she first showed up, but I still couldn’t play a painter on TV.

Necessity is the mother of invention — and research.

The other day, another character’s almost-five-year-old brother was watching a movie on his family’s big-screen TV. What was he watching? No clue. I don’t know any five-year-olds. It’s been a long time since I was five. I do hear car sounds from the hallway, and I know that when he’s not watching TV the kid likes pedaling his racing car around the driveway. I could leave it at “a movie” and come back to it later, after consulting parent and grandparent friends, but I want to know now, goddammit.

Google can be the world’s worst procrastination tool, but right now it’s my friend. I start typing: Popular movies for k . . . Google fills in kindergarteners. Sounds good: this kid will be in kindergarten next year. After consulting a couple of “top ten” lists, I slip Chitty Chitty Bang Bang into the DVD player. Or maybe it’s a Blu-ray player? I’m a total idiot about all things cinematic, unless they were made before 1980. DVD vs. Blu-ray can wait. Maybe the movie won’t turn out to be Chitty Chitty Bang Bang after all, but for now it is and that’s good enough.

My first novel, The Mud of the Place, took an unexpected turn when a minor character told my protagonist something she didn’t know. I hadn’t known it either. It changed everything.

First-drafting is like watching actors on a stage. I’m the stage manager: I write down what they’re doing and saying. If someone’s standing around looking lost, I send someone else in her direction. That usually stirs things up. Sometimes a ker-thunk offstage signals that interesting stuff is happening just out of sight. I pull back the curtain: “Gotcha!”

All these years I’ve been saying confidently that my fiction is “character-driven.” But of course! I watch my characters move around. I shamelessly eavesdrop on their conversations. If my characters aren’t driving my fiction, who is? The opposite of “character-driven” is “plot-driven.” “Plot-driven” means that the characters serve the plot; “character-driven” means that they create it. Right?

While I was procrastinating the other day, a website informed me that I had it wrong: “A plot-driven novel,” it said, “has a recallable plot and not-so-recallable characters; a character-driven novel has recallable characters, and a not-so-recallable plot.”

Other writers and editors have different ideas, I discovered. I also discovered that there’s no shortage of advice out there about how to create memorable characters and memorable plots.

Sometimes Google is my friend. Sometimes Google is a trickster. Sometimes I need to stop Googling and get back to work.

Back in March I blogged that editing is like driving. So’s writing. The author’s driving the bus — she’s the only one with a valid license — but there’s all sorts of acting and interacting going on behind her. Sometimes she stops to pick up a hitchhiker. She thinks she knows where she’s going, but she’s open to other ideas.

And in case you wondered where this bus image came from, I walk past the West Tisbury School parking lot at least once every day. This is what I see. The dog is my Travvy. He’s a character too.

The backside of the buses, seen from our usual route. In early May, a brushfire scorched the woods hereabouts.

The backside of the buses, seen from our usual route. In early May, a brushfire scorched the woods hereabouts.

Travvy talks to the school buses.

Travvy talks to the school buses.

Course Correction

Earlier this week I officially set aside novel #2, working title The Squatters’ Speakeasy, to work on novel #3, which doesn’t really have a working title yet. I’ve been calling it “Wolfie” for reasons that will shortly become apparent.

Travvy inspired Wolfie, but Wolfie gets into a lot more trouble.

Trav inspired Wolfie, but Wolfie gets into a lot more trouble.

Over a year ago, Shannon — a protagonist in my Mud of the Place (aka novel #1) and also a major player in Squatters — spotted a dog running through the woods. She followed it, first in her car, then on foot. She caught it as it tried to wriggle through a fence to get to the sheep on the other side, just in time to save it from the owner of the sheep, who was headed in their direction with a rifle in his hand.

I liked the story, not least because the dog, called Wolfie because that’s what he looked like, was clearly based on my Travvy. But despite my best efforts I couldn’t graft it onto Squatters’ Speakeasy. I made a new folder for it, promised to come back, and returned to Squatters.

Squatters was alive, no doubt about that. It sprawled and kept sprawling, tossing up possibilities like — well, like a dog that offers one behavior after another because it doesn’t know what its person wants. I didn’t know what I wanted either.

In early February, I took a break from Squatters to work on an essay about a controversial statue. (See “Get Me Rewrite” for details.) I also started this blog. When I got up in the morning, I couldn’t wait to sit down in my chair and start writing. I finished the essay. I kept going with the blog. Whenever I thought about waking Squatters from its winter snooze, I was overcome by an irresistible urge to play endless games of Spider solitaire.

I’ve been here before. You probably have too. Is this procrastination, pure and simple? I wondered. What’s really going on here?

As I set out on the path that led to The Mud of the Place, looming up ahead was the 40-Page Barrier. It was high. It was wide. It was solid. I’d written essays, reviews, poems, stories, and one-act plays, some of them pretty good and many of them published, but at 40 pages I choked. I was the cartoon character that runs off a cliff and keeps running — till she looks down, realizes the ground has disappeared, and plummets.

Build it scene by scene, I was advised. Brilliant! Scenes were shorter, often lots shorter, than the essays and such that I’d managed to finish. I could write scenes. Scene by scene I left the 40-Page Barrier in the distance. 100 pages, 200 . . .

As I closed in on 300 pages, a supporting character said something I hadn’t suspected. It changed everything. Prospects had been looking grim for Jay, one of my protagonists. With one character’s revelation they improved immensely. OK, I thought. I’ll finish this first draft, I’ll beat the 40-Page Barrier once and for all, then I’ll go back and rewrite.

But I couldn’t. After happily running on air for nearly 300 pages, I looked down and saw how far down the ground was. I didn’t plummet, but I couldn’t keep going either.

I went back and started rewriting. Thanks to my outspoken character, I noticed things and sensed possibilities I’d missed before. The first 300 pages went much faster this time. I charged forward. I completed a draft that needed plenty of work, sure, but it was still pretty good.

Nevertheless, the standard advice of more experienced writers is Keep going, no matter what! With Procrastination fighting for control of my time, I tried to follow it. But Procrastination was gaining the upper hand.

Then a Facebook friend linked to an article that said procrastination wasn’t all bad. An email from a novelist whose list I’d just joined assured me that writing could and should be fun. And a member of my writers’ group mentioned a paper he’d co-authored about working with survivors of incest and other abuse. I had no idea he’d done this. He had no idea this was a emerging theme in the “Wolfie” manuscript.

These had to be omens. Reassured, I’m running with “Wolfie.” But I’m still nervous. The end is a long way off, and the ground is a long way down. Wish me luck.