I usually try to stray away from these pseudo-intellectual questions, because in the end no question is really answered, and all you’re left with is a few minutes of your time gone from your day. However, earlier this week I was lurking around on a writer forum, and I saw a rather interesting thread. Its title oozed worry, making me think, “Oh god, this is going to be another confidence killer, isn’t it?” Thankfully, it wasn’t (at least for me).
See, this guy was complaining about a certain paragraph he had read in Stephen King’s On Writing.
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness or even despair. The sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and eyes narrow ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you, or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say that again: You must not come lightly to the blank page. I’m not asking you to come reverently or unquestioningly, I’m not asking you to be politically correct or to cast aside your sense of humor. Please, God, you have one! This isn’t a popularity contest. It’s not the moral Olympics, and it’s not church. But it’s writing, dammit! Not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book or eject the tape, and do something else. Wash the car maybe.
And it’s great, really; any writer who has taken pride in their work should be able to relate to that, right? Well, apparently not. See, the thread starter became frantic when he read that passage, because it made him feel that he would never be able to write a proper book. “Why?” we asked him, and his reason was that he had none of that mmpfh when it came to writing, that he was afraid to look deep into himself and really spill his blood onto the page in the way Stephen King describes.
And honestly, I just don’t get that. I know we’re all entitled to our own opinions, and I’m not calling the guy out or anything, but I really just don’t get it. I always assumed that writers wrote because we have that urge inside of us, that mmpfh that makes you stream words from your fingertips like water from a faucet. Why even write if you don’t have that passion inside of you? Why spend hours and days and weeks and months toiling over a white Word document or a blank notebook if you’re not putting your soul into it? Isn’t that what writing’s about? Isn’t that what art is about?
I write for the same reason that artists paint, musicians play, actors act. I write because if I didn’t, I would be incomplete, and I would be nothing more than a drone, waiting for myself to die. I write because I feel a need to craft stories that might hopefully touch people, in the same way movies like Schindler’s List does, or songs like Rod Stewart’s Sailing.
I am sailing, I am sailing,
home again ‘cross the sea.
I am sailing, stormy waters,
to be near you, to be free.
I am flying, I am flying,
like a bird ‘cross the sky.
I am flying, passing high clouds,
to be with you, to be free.
Can you hear me, can you hear me
thro’ the dark night, far away,
I am dying, forever trying,
to be with you, who can say.
Can you hear me, can you hear me,
thro’ the dark night far away.
You don’t just put your fingers down to a keyboard and write something like that. You breathe life into it and make it alive as you are now, staring back at you with all its flaws and imperfections. What’s a story if you don’t put yourself in it? Anyone can write a tale about a fair knight who slayed the dragon and saved the princess, but no matter how elegant the writing is, if there’s no soul, then the book is nothing more than a hollow collection of pages bound between two harder pieces. And that wouldn’t be a very good book.
If you think that you want to be a writer (and I honestly thought no one ever needed to be told this), then you really need to understand what you’re going to have to do. You will have to look deep in the slums of your mind, the places where bitter men bury their memories and children smile away their first lies, where everything you’ve ever regretted goes to hide. Remember the things that bothered you, those things that made you cry, laugh, hurt, mad, your first thoughts of killing another person (yes, we’ve all had them) and those secret nights when you wanted to forget everyone and everything and just off yourself… and use them. But use the good things, too. Remember your first love, the way she broke your heart in the way all first loves do, your best friends and your family, your birthdays and your first times. Think of the person who holds your heart and imagine that there’s nothing else you can do to show him or her your affection than by the prose of your fingertips. Only then will it be real.
Scoop them out with a plastic shovel and place it on the table before you, filter through the crap and dirt, and understand why those things affected you so. Analyze them and realize them; don’t be ashamed of them and don’t hide them from yourself, because this is your material. Not knights or vampires or werewolves or spaceships, those things are merely the paint, the avatars to your ideas. Your story shouldn’t be driven by the craziness and “uniqueness” of your things, but by the truthfulness, however way presented, in your words.
Now, I’m not saying you have to write a depressing introspection-heavy book. Be funny, strict, adventurous, kinky, whatever you want, but be real. Writing isn’t just about crafting a story where the protagonist defeats the antagonist and happily ever after. It’s an advent into psychology and the human mind, exploring how we interact with each other. Don’t be afraid to use yourself as reference, because your entire life is the best research you could ask for, as long as you look at yourself properly. If you’re going to write in the first place, you should be hitting it as hard as you can. Or else, why do it at all?