“What do you write?”
You know the question. Someone at a gathering mentions to someone else that you’re a writer and the invariable question comes. Oh, we love this question, don’t we? It’s a chance to share, perhaps with a modicum of modesty, that we write fiction or poetry or essays . . . And yet, there’s a guilty feeling inside. Am I really a writer? I have sixteen stories that have never seen the light beyond my room. Fifty two poems. A drawer full of rejection letters. The question depresses us. We feel inadequate and go home later either vowing to write better or maybe thinking we’ll give up on this business about being a writer. No more questions, no more inadequacy.
But you don’t give up, you just drag yourself to the writer’s whipping post and pluck halfheartedly at the vision of your story. All because you want to be a writer.
I didn’t use to call myself a writer during the years of real inconsistency. I would have spurts and fits, and sometimes I would complete a story, particularly when I was in college and could make it part of my curriculum. But then there would be long summers of suffering the call to go outside against the call to stay in and write. There were events to attend, obligations to fulfill, gatherings. And then the question came – what do you write?
Nothing published, nothing to prove I was a writer. Just my word.
I failed to realize, in those days, that I wrote volumes of quality business documents. Memos to bosses, reports on conference events, letters to students, and though these weren’t stories and no one was giving me awards, I put a lot of thoughtful energy into those things to the point that when it came time for my colleagues to write memos they would ask for my help, ask me to review their work because I was “the word guy.” Meanwhile I would write a poem here or there, about anything that inspired me, and these poems would end up in the hands of friends who wanted to keep them, or as gifts, and people took pleasure in reading them. I never sent a single one out for publication because I was a fiction writer. Fiction writers don’t write poems and nice, well-crafted memos. And there were journals, too, at various points. I kept records of some of my thoughts, stacks of papers with ideas and musings and daydreams.
What do you write?
All of my confidence as a writer was based on writing in one form. If I wasn’t blowing through fiction and publishing across the planet then I still was not a writer. I made the mistake of thinking that to qualify as a writer I had to be making progress on the one thing I wanted most. I didn’t recognize the truth of what I was told by one of my earliest instructors: “Writers write – one word at a time.” He did not say “writers write fiction – one word at a time” or “writers write poetry, memoir, essays.”
As I continue to work with others who have a love of writing I hear over and over how they despair about being any good. Many of these people are fiction writers, and they complain that their stories are boring, uninteresting, that they don’t have what it takes. But writers write. They do it every day. They write on scraps of paper or they try to make a boring old memo exquisite. They draw pictures on their meeting agendas and dream up stories about them. In quiet moments they put down a few words, grab an inspired moment out of the air and pin it to the paper so they can come back and examine it later.
If you are putting in the effort to write then you are a writer. We are what we do. Words are as interesting to us as color, as music, as the smell of our favorite food. They are a flash of naked skin, a sound we can’t pinpoint until we investigate. We read them, think about them, and write them down. We may want to make them into stories or poems or essays that someone else will love, and perhaps we will if we don’t quit. But as long as we write we are writers. This is as noble a calling as any because writing is hard, and when we get it right and can share it well with others we connect with our world and our world connects with us.
Many people want to be writers but they don’t write. Perhaps they don’t read. They just want, and wish they had the initiative to do what they imagine. Writers do it, in every form they can, as often as they can. Writers write.
Writing takes the same dedication as plumbing, law, medicine, teaching, managing. Anything you can imagine takes as much effort as it takes to be a writer. You can no more expect to be an expert carpenter the first day on the job than you can expect to publish your first writing a week after you finish it. You start by carrying materials, rolling hoses, shoveling dirt. With enough time and effort you move up to hammering nails, setting walls – you get the idea.
So next time someone asks what you write remember that writing is not one-dimensional. If you write, you are a writer.