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.