Monday, May 17, 2010

Where You're Writing from

Pick a place you have been before, some city at a distance, some locale such as an airport or train station, even a clinic, or restaurant, possibly even a theater or store. You are alone, enjoying the deliciousness of anonymity. Most likely you will not see anyone you recognize. You are perfectly aware of your own identity, the details, as it were, of your own resume or curriculum vitae. But you are a stranger to those about you. You could ask for directions, of course, except that you don't need directions. You know where things are or have a pretty good idea of where to look should your needs require something of great specificity.


Now we turn the tables, or at least rearrange some of the furniture.

You are a writer, of course; you know that about yourself, know it well enough not to have to stop some complete stranger to inform him or her that, here you are, a writer, at loose in this place you've been before, this airport or train station, or clinic, or restaurant, possibly in a theater or a store. In the first place, no body cares, that is, unless some fan recognizes you. No body cares or can recite the dates of your publications. Many of the individuals you see are not even readers. True enough, most of them can probably read, but many of them also would rather do something other than read, say attend movies or a theater or yoga lessons or a sporting event; some of them might be more interested in crafts, making stained glass windows or tossing pots, or painting in oil or gouache, or tempera.

You being a writer is of no interest to them, even though it is of great interest to you. They, whoever they are, might be more interested in problems of mathematical natures or just possibly causing progressions of tones from one or more musical instruments, or practicing law, wherein some written documents are thought of as instruments. The point is that you telling them you are a writer is not a sufficient condition to cause them to wish to read something you've written, Indeed, even if they, whoever they might be, were interested in reading such a thing as a short story or a novel, even though you are a writer is not sufficient enough condition to cause them to want to read something you've written.

Part of your job as a writer is to produce a work of enough stature that, without you even being present to urge them to read the work, they will nevertheless to some degree wish to read what you have written. Before this can happen with any predictability and regularity, there are some things you have to know that extend beyond the conventions followed in historical or contemporary story.

Anyone can memorize the ingredients which are constituent parts of, say, a cupcake. A surprising number of individuals who never baked cupcakes before could, if scrupulously following a recipe for constructing a cupcake, produce a whole bake pan of them. A surprising number of individuals with less technical knowledge and talent than you could follow a recipe for writing a short story, then produce immediately one of such nuance and emotional depth that it would find almost immediate publication. This is a condition that may not seem fair, particularly given the time you've put in on the honing of your own talent, but it has happened before and will happen again.

It would therefore be of no small assistance to your own resume or curriculum vitae if you had some idea why you'd come to this familiar place where no one knows you, some sense of the motivation for tucking into a particular work, some goal or effect residing in the part of creativity we'll call your heart and also in the part of your creativity we have called the mind or story center. Writing a story without building into it a sense of who you are, how you feel and think, how you articulate your material is like the master criminal who wipes away all traces of fingerprint and other betraying DNA.

If you do not know or are unwilling to disclose who you are, why would some complete stranger in this theoretical locale take anything you say seriously?

And yet.

And yet, weren't there times when you believed that all you had to do was demonstrate how much you loved words or had such a splendid vocabulary or a way with description was sufficient cause to make readers take an interest in your story?

And weren't there times when you were told that your narrative didn't ring true to some reader that your retort was, But it really happened that way?

And weren't there times when you seethed with envy when someone you knew to be a lesser writer than you was able to concoct things from whole cloth, then find a score of avid believers?

And weren't there times when you'd committed writing books by writers such as John Gardener and Anne Lamott and Janet Burroway and Barnaby Conrad to memory, holding forth on them like the individuals who appear on your front porch from time to time, wanting to chat with you about God?

If you tell me who you are and what your goals beyond being a writer are, the odds in favor of you being listened to go up. I want to be a writer is a sufficient condition but it is not yet a necessary one. I wanted to be a sculptor is not an effective way to get persons to look at your sculpting. I wanted to become a sculptor and so as a child, I began experimenting with the bricks in my parents' fireplace, and the cubes of butter in the refrigerator, and boulders in a nearby park, and one day, while I was playing with the side of my parent's garage, I caused the entire building to collapse.

Now that would be a sculptor whose work it would be interesting to see.

Who are you? Why should we listen to you, much less trust you? What are you trying to demonstrate about life? What can we learn from you?

Think about it: there are about a hundred words, more or less, on the opening page of a story. Successful writers are successful because they suggest answers to these and other mysteries of the cosmos within these few opening lines, letting us know who they are from the get go.

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