When people ask about writing, I tell them they should have contacted me many years ago, when I could have told them much more than I can now. All I know about writing now is I continue to write and hope that next idea will find its way to my mind or stomach, I am not sure which. If I happen to read something about writing that strikes me as true, I am surprised and delighted. In fact, I am often surprised to read anything that suggests the person writing it was not lying in one way or another, writing something that sounded or felt right at the time but which had little or no application or connection to the actual act of writing. So, forgive me if I try to write down a few things that do seem true to me about this mysterious act.
Preparation is necessary. I mean here that some apprentice work seems to be required. I have never heard of or seen any man or woman who begins to write as well as they may one day on their very first attempt at a story or novel. I speak of fiction because I do not know how this is with poets. Keats died at twenty-four, Blake was an anomaly. Sylvia Plath rewrote poems early in her life though she seems to have needed this less as death approached. Fiction writers do improve with practice, even child geniuses like Truman Capote. Some, perhaps many, do not write stories worth reading at the start, except as curiosities after they have accomplished much. There comes a point when the language responds to your touch differently, even though you may have to move it around to find the right arrangement. The test of the desire to write may be whether or not the impulse survives this early period.
Rewriting is necessary. The exception here may be in the early stage of writing, when the discovery of an ability is so new that one story pops out after another, with no reason to rewrite because one has learned everything necessary from the first draft. There may be cases in which the writer experiences a gift such as Flannery O’Connor describes in the writing of “Good Country People.” Every good writer probably receives one or two of these in a lifetime. This is not usual. Returning to the manuscript with the same energy and dedication one gave to the first draft is probably required; if that prospect does not appeal to you, try playing the piano. My rule of thumb is that a draft is every time you think you finished.
Sending out stories and novels is a must. If you write manuscripts and leave them in a file in your desk or computer, you are not yet a writer, though you may be an apprentice. If you have written all your life and stored the results in some such file you are a lifetime apprentice, which is fine if that’s what you want. The act of writing is not complete until you send out what you have written for others to read, whether you experience success or repeated failure. I know of no writers who have not experienced failure when they send out a manuscript. This may not stop you from sending out stories and novels you write, because the act of writing is incomplete until they have been received by someone else. The early reading of fiction by friends or family may play a part in composition process, if your friends and family don’t scream at you, but it is not the act of finality. Seeing your work in print serves as maintenance to your desire to write.
You must want to write. If you cease to want to write you will not write. One sign of the writer is that the desire to write persists though interrupted by the necessities of life, both joys and sorrows and, simply, responsibilities. In fact, if you can have these experiences and take care of your responsibilities in an involved manner and yet continue to desire to write, and to move that desire into practice when you can, you may well be a writer. You will cease to be a writer when the desire to write eludes you. This condition may be painful either for a while or terminally. If the desire returns after the hiatus, you may once again be a writer. Then you will probably need to rework your manuscripts and send them out once more. If the desire to write disappears, you may feel free to dismiss it with a simple wave of the hand. Let it go where it goes. If you are a writer it will return. If it is painful to you, it is nothing more than pain.
You must be ready to pursue an idea that comes to you. You must receive your ideas as you might receive an infant, ready to accept it into your life. One of the good things is that it will not remain with you as long as an infant. You must receive the idea ready to take care of it and develop it and return it to its own life. You must care about bringing it to fruition, and your caring must extend to the full term of its life with you before you pass it on to the world.
Your stories should be vivid and interesting. Compelling is something toward which to strive. You should read the stories of others to discover how this is accomplished. You should read the work of others to find the kind of writing you like. You should relish the work of other writers who appeal to you, and you should read them completely, with total engagement. This will lead you toward your own writing, your own stories and novels. If you are not doing this, you probably cannot survive or succeed as a writer.
My confession is that I do not consider myself a successful writer except in the terms I have presented. All of these typify my writing life. I have written many more stories than I have published, though I have published over seventy stories and personal essays in my lifetime. I have never experienced what it would seem to me I could reasonably call fame. Each time I write a story, each time I send it out, it is the same. Acceptances and publications support my writing in a way that eases dissatisfactions, and, thank God, they come more frequently now, but I never have the sense an editor knows who I am or is eagerly awaiting my manuscript. I am extremely pleased whenever an editor accepts a story; I am more pleased when the editor seems to like the story in a more than passing manner. I have never experienced any greater satisfaction than when Stanley Lindberg accepted two of my personal essays for The Georgia Review—may he rest in peace.
When I am writing, I am young again, or ageless. I am a child inside, but I have done my preparation. I am willing to rewrite as long as necessary until the story is finished. I always want to write, and even when life calls me away to joy or sorrow or responsibility, I return with an even greater desire to write, though this sometimes causes frustration and pain. The frustration and pain I feel cannot equal that which I have felt in life itself; the joy and sorrow is not as great as that I have suffered and enjoyed in life. But it is this that sustains me in all things, and to which I return with the same desire, ready to accept and develop an idea that comes to me with sufficient strength to make me stay with it. And above all and through all, I continue to search for those voices, those stories and novels, that refresh and sustain my own desire to write. When I hear the sound, and feel the tension of their desire to write, a desire so great as to be thought of as a physical need, and in moments of peaceful reflection, I think of this as a calling.