For years I have relied on two books regarding the craft of writing: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Stephen King’s On Writing. I have always known there are others, and have realized that I could learn a thing or two from them, but I’ve just been busy writing and applying the advice from these two that I haven’t sought more. Now, I have another.
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is almost 20 years old. I read it this past week and the advice resonated with me on so many levels. It is truly a gift on honesty and insight.
While reading, I experienced the serendipity of finding numerous articles on the craft. These, along with Lamott’s work, and that of Goldberg and King have led me to a few conclusions about what it takes to be a writer.
1. Mental Instability
I don’t mean this in a derogative way. I just recently commented to another author that I have always been “a little off my rocker.” It’s true, I’ve never quite fit in terms of how I see the world, how I perceive things. This doesn’t make me special, just someone who sees through a different lens. But it is this slant of vision that allows me to tell stories. It is the same off-kilter characteristic that pervades all of the books and essays I have read from authors, who try to detail just how and why they do what we do. Because it is an odd way to live–inside your head–telling stories that no one hears until you have them down in print. And that’s only if you let them. But the process hinges on this way of being, and it seems I am not the only one for whom writing is therapy.
Another word that has a certain connotation that may not apply. I’m not talking about sitting with legs crossed, eyes closed, measuring one’s breath. Although, I haven’t tried such, so who knows? What I mean is a certain receptivity to people and events that occur under the surface tension of everyday life. In short, we notice the little things others do not, and then we think about their meaning on a grander scale. I often get so lost in thought, while at work or home, that it appears as if I’m not paying attention to anyone around me. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I didn’t realized I had this trait until my wife pointed it out to me after high school. She watched me wend my way through the halls, my face blank. I used those moments for bad poetry. Today, I get lost, catching snippets for my novels.
I don’t think this aspect applies to authors only. I believe every successful person–however you define such–will have a certain degree of entrenched routine. All of the writers discussed habits of turning writing into an automatic expression of thought by simply writing daily, at a certain time and for a certain duration. I didn’t fix on my time and duration until after my children were born, but I am locked in now. It’s not without sacrifice, though, and I think an unspoken element of routine is commitment. I do not enjoy going to bed an hour after my five-year-old, but to be up early and to have the consistency to write, I adhere. Monday-Friday mornings are alight with the sound of my keyboard in the silence of my home.
Sum of Parts
Obviously this is not an exhaustive list, that isn’t the point. I merely hoped to showcase some of the criteria that seems to be swimming inside authors. If you find a loved one demonstrating these qualities, offer them some space and a keyboard or notebook. I think what may come will surprise and delight.