When people hear of my profession as a writer, they are usually interested and fascinated. For some reason, being a writer seems mysterious and unapproachable, as though it is an arcane ability coming from an alien place. Many will say that they used to write as a child, and I believe that is a natural impulse for children to tell stories and eventually put them on paper, often with images. Sadly, many people lose this skill or desire to write as they get older. College gets in the way, and then careers and family obligations and bills. Our imaginations get stifled, and with the advent of social media, there is far less original thought with people preferring to retweet or like a post or image instead. Many are, understandably, scared off by the prospect of submissions and rejections, and don’t wish to put themselves out there. And then finally, there are people who are not inclined to write, for whatever reason. There are many myths about being a writer; here are the realities.
Fundamentally, the writer personality is one in which the writer is the interface between what happens out in the world and how it is explained to others. No matter how social the person, a writer must at their core be an introvert. One must reflect, process, analyze, describe, poeticize, and synthesize one’s experiences. How are we interpreting what goes on in the outside world? Are we reporting it verbatim, like a journalist would? Are we putting it in language that is out of the ordinary, like a poet would? Are we creating a story or narrative from seemingly disparate or random events, like a fiction writer would? Or combination of all of the above? The writer connects the outer world to the inner world, and this is an endlessly complex and varying process.
A writer creates imaginary places and situations. Sometimes, this means building a world. Speculative and science fiction writers most commonly do this, but then there are invented situations based in reality, as in historical fiction. A writer who is alive now may not have lived during Eleanor Roosevelt’s heyday, but they may hypothesize what her life was like, her relationships, a vacation, or a day in the life. I argue even that autobiography and memoir have a certain element of imagination or fictionalizing, because we cannot 100% remember everything that has happened to us in the exact way in which it did.
A writer must be, needless to say, a very verbal person, someone who can put into words what one sees, thinks, and feels. This is not the case with other artistic mediums, such as dance or music composition. A poet may write an elegy to a deceased friend, whereas a composer may write a sonata for orchestra or guitar piece. There is a fascinating, thought-provoking opera by Richard Strauss called Capriccio in which the heroine, Madeleine, must decide which is more important: words or music (as shown through her two lovers, who are a poet and composer). A writer’s medium is words. Choosing the right words can make or break a piece of writing. Poets are incredibly precise and may spend hours or days in getting the words right. By extension, translators also are word-artists who have the added layer of converting the language into the reader’s language.
On a more concrete level, writers must be disciplined. For many, this means writing at the same time every day, or setting a page/word quota. For others, it is a more flexible act, less rigidly scheduled, perhaps writing after a few cups of coffee at 10 PM. However, I believe that to be successful as a writer, one must write whether or not one feels like it. Waiting for the muse is a ridiculous concept; the muse comes through the process of writing. All of this is, of course, tedious sometimes. Non-writers need to understand how boring and frustrating the process of writing is, writing and revising, writing and cutting things out, writing and deciding to write something else instead. The list goes on.
Being a writer requires a balance of humility and hubris. The former is something that more writers need to have. Getting feedback is paramount; finding the right people to give the feedback that you need is a challenging process. But when those people are found, a writer has to consider carefully what those readers have said and incorporate that feedback in the next draft(s). Humility also means cutting out things that do not work in your piece, even though you may be very attached to them (hence the proverbial writerly expression of “kill your darlings”). It means putting aside what you want and thinking about the reader, if you are the sort of writer that wants to be read. This is not easy to do. Hubris means not arrogance but having confidence in one’s vision as a writer–sometimes it can feel like the world is trying to extinguish it. Editor agent after agent or journal after journal may reject your work, but you have to believe that your work is worthy. Kate DiCamillo, author of Because of Winn-Dixie, was rejected over 400 times, and now the novel is hailed as one of the best children’s novels of all time and has won many awards. In other words, one must have a very thick skin yet be sensitive enough to feel and express through words, and also receptive to others’ comments.
An especially good writer will see things in a different way or see things that others don’t see. The power of observation is a necessity for a writer, for they provide insight into human nature or life in ways that feel obvious to the reader, and yet the reader would not have recognized it on their own. Providing an “aha” for a reader is a gift that the best writers have. For example, Willa Cather and Tolstoy gave us penetrating insight into the human condition, and for that we are grateful.
There are, of course, the stereotypes: the straight white male who loves his alcohol and thinks he is the next Carver or David Foster Wallace, the woman who writes autobiographical fiction about her bipolar mother and cheating father, the BIPOC writer who writes the immigrant story and feels like nobody else understands, etc. These are never fun, and sometimes the publishing industry can play into these tropes if it means the books are marketable. It is unfortunate that writers must be aware of what sells. In the end, I believe, if a writer is true to themselves, then they will ultimately succeed, because a writer is an artist, and all the best artists are truly original and have something unique to say.