A Writer’s Life?

rm pondered:
What makes someone a writer?

and ppb plans a writing discipline and wonders:
Maybe I’ll get better. Maybe I won’t.  But the bigger question is this: how would I know?

I started to respond in ppb’s comments, but decided to explore the questions further here.

What is it, indeed, that makes a person a writer?

Isn’t it completely subjective? I mean, you can get an M.F.A. in writing, but lots of people we could certainly agree are writers have never “studied” in the formal sense. And some people who make a boatload of money publishing their books are “terrible” writers, in my opinion. It’s a trick bag. It’s not like being a lawyer, doctor, accountant or even a pastor. It’s more like being a cook. You could go to school for it, but you might never do so and still be wonderful at it and famous for doing it. Or you might cook for yourself or for family and identify “cook” as one of the important parts of yourself without ever claiming it as a public title. (Heck, you could even be an untrained writer and cook and write a bestselling book about food and cooking.)

I’ve often said I’m a Word Girl. I love the words of hymns. I love to read. I love to hear smart people talk, even about things I don’t understand. My father encouraged me to write when I left home, perhaps hoping I would live his unlived life, the one he chose away from when the acceptance from law school came a week before the acceptance from journalism school.

I like to say I’m a writer who preaches. What this means to me is that there is joy in putting the words together. When I am tense or unhappy or stressed, I want to write about it. When I see something interesting, I want to write about it. When I overhear something funny, I want to write about it. None of these things do I want to simply document. I want to make sense of them or turn them over in a way that shows a different angle.

But my life is not designed to allow for the discipline that I always understood needed to be part of “a writer’s life.” I don’t rise extra-early to scratch away for three hours before the sun, and the children, arise. I try to write something every day, but as you saw earlier in the week, it may simply be a list of things in the front of my mind, each of which could use a paragraph or a chapter of its own.

And aside from the weekly sermon, the preparation of which lies somewhere between art and technical writing, I have no product other than what is on the blog. I’m not secretly writing a novel (although encouraged by NaNoWriMo, I wrote a page-and-a-half in early November). I am not composing a memoir, although this blog could certainly serve as a template or outline if I chose to do so. (But why would I?)

Still, when the man at the garage told me the car would be an hour, and I went next door to Dunkin’ Donuts for a cup of coffee and looked around at the nearby sights, I thought, “I need to write this down.”

Here it is. I don’t know if it makes me a writer. I only know I had to write it down.

It’s not an attractive block, the stretch of St. John Street from the railway bridge to the Dogfish Cafe. It contains many things you might want and some you might wish to avoid. You could cash a check here, even if you didn’t have a bank account, or wire money to pay your overdue light bill. You might acquire a donut, or a cheeseburger, or a greasy piece of pizza or some atrocious Chinese food. You could certainly have your tires rotated. If you had no other place to sleep, you could pitch your tent in the narrow space between the bank of the raised trestle and the fence marking the McDonald’s property line. If you did camp there, you might spend the night uneventfully. Or if you were less fortunate, your friend might swing his backpack full of bottles at your head, and he and his girlfriend might be too drunk to notice you were bleeding out during the night.

It’s not an attractive block.

11 thoughts on “A Writer’s Life?

  1. childhood friend

    You have always been a writer!
    But come to think of it, you have always been a preacher.
    And I can almost smell that sad stretch of road.

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  2. I like the “writer who preaches” or “preacher who writes” thing. As I said at my place, I’m all about the verbs.
    Good thoughts on the “writing life” too! Thanks for continuing the conversation!

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  3. Songbird, you have a gift, judging by the sample you posted. I make a living doing the boring kind of writing (technical, scientific stuff). I really enjoy creative writing, but it doesn’t pay the bills at the moment (still, I’m trying…)
    I think what makes you a writer is not the credentials or training, but rather being passionate about it and feeling compelled to write. If you’ve ever felt like you would shrivel up and blow away if you weren’t writing, then you’re a writer!

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  4. I was just re-reading some of Kathleen Norris’s Cloister Walk this morning. (Shocked that it’s been eleven years since the first time I read it! Where has time gone??)
    She rejects the whole concept of earning credentials in order to be a writer. Comparing the role the writer to that of the prophet Jeremiah, she writes: “Jeremiah reminded me that the pain that comes from one’s identity, that grows out of the response to a call, can’t be escaped or pushed aside. It must be gone through. He led me into the heart of pain, forcing me to recognize that to answer a call as a prophet, or a poet for that matter, is to reject the authority of credentials, of human valuation of any kind, accepting only the authority of the call itself.”
    I have profoundly appreciated you as a writer for over a year now.

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