Access a Writer’s Life, Even If You Don’t Write
I have revered writers since the day I learned to read. I have wanted to live a writer’s life almost as long.
In my teens and early 20’s, I mimicked what I thought of as a writer’s life. That life featured a typewriter or legal pad in front of me; towering stacks of books on all sides, and an intravenous drip of Diet Coke to power me through long nights and weekends of university essays.
In my 30’s and early 40’s, I believed that a writer required a beautiful, inspiring work space. One with a view of trees and water would be ideal. Even better would be a thatched roof cottage by the sea in Wales where said writer could labour for hours before strolling to the local pub for a simple dinner of crusty bread and hearty stew served by the gruff yet kindly publican.
I realized that something was amiss after I owned the beautiful work space, had six books published, and was still longing for a writer’s life.
For many years, I was convinced that the something missing was a ‘serious’ book idea. All of my writing has been in the field of education. Because that kind of writing comes easily to me, I don’t always value it. Real writers, in my mind, are writing literary non-fiction or novels.
There are times when I’m still convinced that another book is what is missing for me. I’m good at tormenting myself with the question of will I or won’t I? And if I do, what book would make me feel like a real writer?
Fortunately, there are also times when the mist clears. At those times, I can acknowledge that a writer’s life actually has little to do with writing and even less with publication.
I’ve come up with six characteristics of a writer’s life, organized in the form of a handy dandy acronym. (I know… but acronyms are helpful aids for sometimes flagging memories.)
Living a Writer’s Life Means …
A writer lives close to her experience. She notices (my word of the year), observes and listens. Because a writer pays attention, she is able to think and feel more deeply than people who live according to long-established patterns and unquestioned beliefs. And while going deep means that the tough times are tougher, it is also true that there are many more opportunities to be enchanted and to write in ways that share the enchantment:
“Champagne has the taste of an apple peeled with a steel knife.” Aldous Huxley
Curiosity is a companion to awareness. Curiosity provides us with the raw material we need in order to go deeper and create, whether our creation is a poem or a dish we haven’t prepared before. When we are curious and aware, we allow ourselves to be surprised. And as Bill Bryson says in A Short History of Nearly Everything,
“We live on a planet that has a more or less infinite capacity to surprise. What reasoning person could possibly want it any other way?”
It is so important that we keep on learning, that we see ourselves growing and changing. To do otherwise, to feel finished and complacent, is to be dead long before we close our eyes for the last time.
Challenge is the characteristic of a writer’s life that, for me, has me thinking that I want to write another book. I find the experience of challenge sharpest when there is a product I am working toward achieving.
Ernest Hemingway spoke to this key element of a writer’s life when he wrote,
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
I’ve used the word ‘energy’, but ‘enthusiasm’ would work, as would ‘exuberance.’ The idea is to live with the kind of passion and tenacity that keeps writers labouring for years without acknowledgment, simply because they have something they need to say.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe writes,
“In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm…in the real world all rests on perseverance.”
Writers must be willing to disconnect from the world’s relentless babble; to slow time and go inside to the source of imagination and wisdom. Virginia Woolf speaks of solitude’s importance for all women in To the Lighthouse:
“For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of–to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others…and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.”
When writing fiction, simplicity is an economy of words, the fewest and most appropriate words to describe a character or set a scene. In nonfiction, simplicity is digging for and bringing clarity to the kernel of an idea. As Albert Einstein famously said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
In a writer’s life, when you don’t write, simplicity may be nothing more than
“…going fewer places in one day rather than more, seeing less so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so I can have more.” Jon Kabat-Zinn
Instructions for Living a Writer’s Life
My favourite quotation for a writer’s life comes from poet Mary Oliver. In a poem called ‘Sometimes’, Oliver wrote
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
I do think that “tell about it” matters. As Emile Zola said, “I am here to live out loud.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean through the written word. Maybe for you it is a conversation with a friend, a painting, or a dance. Or maybe it is the written word–an email, a blog post, an essay, poem, book or play. Regardless of the form you choose, each of us can live a writer’s life. I think we owe it to ourselves and the world to do just that.
What do you think of my list? Are all of my characteristics of a writer’s life necessary? Are there any that I need to add? I believe that the characteristics of a writer’s life are also the essential characteristics of any artist’s life, no matter the form. Do you agree?