In my English classroom in high school, there was a large poster in the front of the room. In thick, lurid lime-green block letters it stated: “Every moment spent reading is a moment spent learning how to write.” Even now, I still do not know who this quote is attributed to, but I know that I cannot ever forget it. This might have something to do with the fact that it was placed right next to the whiteboard, which meant that if you ever tired of paying attention to the lesson, your eyes would wander to the next best attention-catching item—the ugly poster. Or it might have something to do with the truth of the statement: some of the best writers I know have sprung from the pages of their favorite authors. At some point, these writers shut away all their doubts and started working on a piece. They must have been doubting themselves the entire time, wondering if they, like the authors they grew up reading, are considered real writers. That’s when you turn to your favorite books about writing—or maybe a rather large glass of wine—to quell these fears.
Of all the essays I’ve read about writing—and there are a lot—I think Anne Lamott puts it best: Writing is just putting “down one damn word after another.” This statement provides a collective sense of relief for many. It doesn’t describe writing as being something only for the precocious or the high and mighty. It makes you hope that perhaps someone, other than your supportive cats, understands that you’re a real writer. Lamott’s description of writing loosely defines what a writer is, meaning that everyone and anyone is a writer. Some days even I wonder if I’m a real writer. I’d love to tell you that there’s a strict mathematical formula for this. But I haven’t heard of one, and I’m horrible with numbers, which is why I’ve drifted towards writing. Perhaps you’re the same way.
When you finally claim the title of “writer,” it isn’t easy. Being a writer means bearing immense responsibility and is not unlike being the ruler of a kingdom. You are in charge of arranging the words in a meaningful way and you decide what they do and what the outcome of this placement will be. As a writer, you are responsible to the readers, to the story, and especially to yourself. Well-intentioned friends will ask you what you do for a living, and instead of telling them you are a professional crier, you mumble that you write a little here and there. And eventually, you keep saying it until one day you believe it. You bear this title, probably willingly and with much care. You have a story to tell and you want others to experience it with the same vividness you did, without being too cliche. And there’s also a little voice—or maybe it’s a rather big one—telling you to not screw up so people don’t think you’re a bad writer. So you muster up all the courage you have, sternly tell all your fears to be quiet, and then start writing your first draft.
First drafts are notoriously horrible, but they are also beautiful. You treat your first piece like you would your first child. You are cautious, but you want to experiment. You follow what you know and what people told you was a good idea, or else you get some advice from a slightly dubious website online. The pages were probably pristine and smooth when you first wrote it, but now it’s become wrinkled and smeared with the remains of your late-night snack binges, and the amount of scrawled out words makes it look like a hastily written to-do list. But just like a new parent, you try out so many styles and phrases until one finally works. Then by the time you are ready to go through the whole process again, you’re hopefully wiser than you were last time and know how to sit down, put words on the page, and create something that makes sense.
There’s a scene in Bird by Bird where Lamott places all the pages of her manuscript on the ground in her backyard and then runs around trying to piece together her story. I could almost picture a flashing sign above her head reading: CAUTION! CREATIVE GENIUS AT WORK. It’s true that you need to have some caution when writing, or you’ll end up miles away from the point you want to make. But it’s more important to be loose, to be crazy and wild and try everything and anything. Once you become brave enough to trust yourself and your writing abilities, most writers once again find it hard to both write what you want to say and find something to write about.
I know very few people who easily know what they want to write about. Often you start writing about one thing and end up writing about another. This in itself can be helpful, though: sometimes you needed to write about the first topic to realize that what you really wanted to talk about was the second thing. Or other times you realize there’s a way you can write about both. It will be messy and complicated, but undeniably creative. In the words of my English teacher: “I think trying to do both usually yields the most interesting writing, which is not to say it’s the easiest choice.” If you’re passionate about what you’re writing about, your essay will be short of brilliant. But if you pick a topic you don’t particularly care about, your readers aren’t going to be interested. If you didn’t want to write it, then people will not want to read it.
About a year ago, I was in a slump. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t write, but rather I didn’t know what to write about. It seemed like everyone else lived a more interesting life and therefore had plenty of material to write about. I think this idea that a writer must capture only the most exciting or painful moments of life is incorrect. And for those skeptics, the moment they read Annie Dillard’s short essay, The Death of the Moth, they’ll be quick to agree with me. Dillard describes how a moth flew into a candle and contemplates the emotional effects of seeing them lying around, crisp and burnt. Whenever I finish telling this story, my friends are quick to point out they are not Annie Dillard. Hardly anyone is, of course. However, the lesson remains the same. As writers, we are tasked with putting into words the joy of living, of feeling raw and moved to emotionless, and everything in between. We are given the job of writing what we see and feel and experience, because no two observations will be the same.
My brother and I are both apple pie fanatics, meaning that when pie is involved, the normal overwhelming love he has for me is nonexistent. My mother and my grandmother both make delicious pies, but in notably different ways. My mother’s pie is sweet, the fruit is syrupy and thick. In comparison, my grandmother’s is tart, a gut-punching sour that is equally delicious. Writing, too, no matter the kind or style, can be as satisfying—reading the piece and the process of creating it.
I often find myself happier when I’m writing a piece than when I’m finished with it. Often there is no sense of closure, even when an ending is written. There is no one to tell you whether you are done, nothing to tell you if your work is written well enough to garner an acceptance by a journal or magazine. But the piece you’ve written should be worth as much to you as it might be to a potential publisher. As Joan Didion once said: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.” There is nothing more comforting than seeing your ideas and characters, wishes and dislikes, turn into something tangible, a creation that will hopefully provide as much comfort to someone else as it did to you. It is a piece that is firmly balanced on bravery and creativity: pillars of equal height that raise your work so it can be appreciated by all.