Thursday, November 14, 2013

What it is to be a Writer (besides writing)

I have been writing stories for as long as I can remember.

I wrote my first novel when I was 23 years old, living in Paris and in love. What a better setting, better start?

I am now approaching 60 and have written a half dozen more novels and a few books. So yes, I write.

But I’d also like to say something about how I perceive that writers approach life and live it differently than others.

Our present culture – capitalism unbound – is constantly bombarding us with information about how we should live: what our sex lives should be, how much we should weigh and what we must look like, and even things we should live and die for, like wars.(Every American coming of age in my lifetime, including my own generation in Vietnam, has had to face this grim issue.)

 Therefore, a writer in the modern world must possess a state-of-the-art and functioning bullshit meter. When the meter alerts us to, we must be aware and alive enough to follow its direction and move out of the ubiquitous piles.

The difference between a hermit, monk and a writer moving out of the junkyards of imposed desires and false choices is that the writer will eventually feel compelled to write about his or her experience.

In my own life I can site the example of being bombarded with information and rational justifications for why my 86 year old mother with Alzheimer’s should be placed in a nursing home. I listened to the arguments, but deep down my writers mind could decipher in exacting details what the experience would be like in real life terms: the feelings of confusion and abandonment; the hours upon hours of loneliness; the sad little group activities that would never satisfy the need for meaningful interaction.

I saw all these things as vividly as if I was living them because I had trained myself, as a writer, to look below the advertised to the real. I paid a heavy price for doing so, as I relate in my latest book.

When I am not writing I enjoy leading creative writing groups where I get to share what I’ve learned over the years and also discover young potential writers.

My first experience with this, a few years ago, was among incarcerated youths, male and female. Many of these youths had such vile upbringings – emotional and sexual abuse were standard fare – that they were quite willing and eager to express themselves to anyone who was willing to listen.  Given the demographic and background, many of them preferred to rap their stories rather than to write them. Some were fiercely talented and might make a career for themselves some day in a quasi musical poetic business that values ‘street-cred’. 

Most of the others were quieter and wrote painful and heartbreaking stories of abuse and their attempts to deal with it and go on living. For them, I did not wish for, or envision, writing careers; I simply prayed that giving them an opportunity to express what they usually held hidden deep inside would somehow allow them to gain a sense of control over what had happened to them.

But we all write, whether on paper or not – it’s the voice in our head that sees things not as we are told they are, but how they actually are.