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Saturday, September 10, 2011

What Is a Real Writer?

What is a real writer? After reading a very dull memoir, I pondered this question for what had to be the hundredth time. On page after page, the memoirist kept lamenting that she had written 14 novels without having any publisher offer her a contract, and she just didn’t understand why. Her parents said she was a born writer, her college teachers said she was a born writer, her husband said she was a born writer, her friends said she was a born writer, and most importantly – she herself knew she was a born writer. But after reading her emotionally flat memoir, I’m not so sure.

A real writer is interested in the natural world, even when writing her own memoir. She is interested in the way the sun moves around the earth, she is interested in the fantastical formations clouds make, she is interested in the musty smell of wet concrete after a rain, she is interested in the sting of pine boughs slapping her face on a windy day, she is interested in the sound of insects buzzing around offal, she is interested in the cowlick in a bus passenger’s hair, she is interested in the odd scar on a man’s otherwise pristine briefcase, she is interested in a child’s intake of breath just before it begins to cry… In other words, a writer’s interests stretch beyond her own flesh. She is continually fascinated with the world and all the wondrous and horrible things in it – even when she believes they don’t personally impact her. Otherwise she’s not truly writing, she’s just typing love letters to herself.

Chances are that if you’ve never been accused of being “nosy,” you’re going to have a hard time becoming a writer. Real writers are so enamored of, so obsessed with, so appalled by the human condition that even with a broken leg they’ll hobble out the door to eavesdrop on a conversation down the street. Real writers are nosy people. If something’s happening to anyone anywhere at any time, they want to know about it. And first hand, whenever possible. They want to know every sloppy detail of a friend’s messed-up love affair and how she felt when she finished the Boston Marathon. That’s why so many novelists start out as journalists (you can’t beat being paid not to mind your own business). That’s why when tragedy strikes, the first question a journalist asks is, “How do you feel?”

Real writers are interested in emotions other than their own. They want to know how you felt when your house was foreclosed on, how you felt when your son first nursed at your breast, how you felt several years later when he shipped off to Afghanistan, they want to know why you can’t stand the sight of blood, they want to know why you prefer country life to the city, they want to know how you felt when the man who raped you was found not guilty.

Real writers are emotional vampires. Allow them access and they’ll suck the emotion right out of you. Not out of malice -- far from it -- but because they need to write it down so that others can feel the way you feel, and thus develop the most precious attribute of true humanity: empathy. When real writers write their books, their stories, their poems, and their articles, they want to convey to people they will probably never meet the feelings of a complete stranger. They want you to feel that stranger’s humanity and to recognize it in yourself.

That's because real writers recognize one great truth: we are all related. Each of us has a common ancestor – the paleontologists have named her “Mitochondria Eve” -- and our many-times-great-grandmother was born around 3.2 million years ago in Africa’s Olduvai Gorge. Like it or not, we are all long-lost sisters and brothers. In opening up our distant kin's heart to us, real writers remind us of our shared humanity. Real writers will always do that -- it’s their job -- and they will continue to do it in darkness and in light, whether surrounded by laughter or by ashes.

19 comments:

Marion Marchetto said...

What a truly wonderful description of a REAL writer. You've hit it on the nose.

Anna L. Walls said...

I couldn't have possibly said that better. Awesome

Don said...

I figured Balzac would have something to say on this subject and googled Balzac and curiosity and came upon "Fully justifying Henry James' belief that the great writer is one on whom "nothing is lost," Balzac finds significance in data most of us would dismiss as too trivial or out-of-the-way to warrant our attention.

Loved your comment. Don Hausrath

John said...

Agree, Betty. I feel the same way about "I have a book in me" by people yet to write anything bookish.

Tammy said...

As a freelance marketing and technical writer, I'd often lament that everyone thinks they can write just because they made it through third grade, because so few people (in the businesses I was working in) actually understood how to craft succinct, correct, persuasive sentences.

Betty, you're right on, for similar reasons, I think. Liking words isn't enough. Knowing how to use big words correctly isn't enough. You've got to be trying to convey something more than just the meanings of words you're using.

Earl Staggs said...

Betty, this is so good I had to save a copy. I'll probably steal from it from time to time.

Thank you.

Tina said...

The writer's greatest tribute -- worth stealing from. My particular favorite gem: "a writer's interests stretch beyond her own flesh." Very well spoken.

Christinekling said...

This is a terrific piece. I love how you built it to conclude with -- Each of us has a common ancestor – the paleontologists have named her “Mitochondria Eve”

We've all met characters like your memoirist - and they will talk your ear off at a party.

A real writer is often told, "My, you're a good listener."

Leslie Budewitz said...

And when they've read something disappointingly dull, real readers respond by posting an essay brimming with insight and inspiration.

Thanks for sharing this, Betty.

Eunice Boeve said...

You are so right. We need every drop of information we can glean in observation and listening, to form the people who live within the pages of our books. Listening, observing is as much research as that which we consider the tradional kind found in libraries and on the internet.

Betty Webb said...

I almost didn't write "Real Writer," because I'm usually slow to condemn anyone's writing. But that memoir had me so irritated for so many reasons that I just couldn't keep my mouth shut. Thanks for all the comments!

Che said...

So tell me, Betty, how do you really feel? :-)

Great piece!

Dory said...

Great comments.

Now I wonder if when someone says: "I write" . . . .should I ask whether or not they're a REAL writer....

Then again, I might get the reply: "whadda' you mean 'real'?"

That could get complicated...;)

Heidiwriter said...

Good post, Betty. Well-said. We can't just be "born" writers, we have to continue to learn and improve our craft--that's what I love about writing.

When I first started submitting, a criticism I received was that my characters were "flat" and that I didn't seem to know my characters. Well, I bristled to myself, I'm writing about family, how can I NOT know my characters?

Well, I took some writing classes and I learned why my characters were described as "flat." And I'm still constantly working on improving my character development, description, emotions, plotlines, etc. It's an on-going journey!

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Great post, Betty. Emotion and character bring books alive. And that point-of-view connection and opinion about what's described make them memorable.

Lori said...

All the commenters who've preceded me have probably said it better than I can. If you aren't interested in what's going on outside of your life, if you have no empathy for other humans, whether you like them (or even know them) or not, then you'll never succees as a novelist. Great blog post, Betty.

Karen Casey Fitzjerrell said...

Man! Talk about zeroing in on the subject! Great piece on Related Emotional Vampires. Though, some are not so much vampires as simply very good at understanding their emotional trek (or the truth about the scar on a man's brief case) is universal to the human condition and able to write it as such. I'm forwarding your link to writer friends.

Jane Finnis said...

I doubt there's any such person as a "born writer". Still, people can be born with an aptitude for words, just as they can have an inbuilt musical r mathematical aptitude from Day 1. That's only a beginning, though; they are at the starting-gate of a particular track, and if they're going to race along it, let alone win, they've a lot of work to do. Thanks for such an interesting and thought-provoking post.

Patricia A. Guthrie said...

That's so true. It makes me feel better about being "nosy." LOL
Real writers do have those ingredients.

Sorry it took me so long to make this comment.

pg