When you think of an author, what is the picture that comes to mind? I’ve asked that of a few folks, and what I hear about is the hard work—the slaving over a notebook, or typewriter, or a keyboard. So it gives us a picture of a solitary individual, and as we all know, the more tortured they are the better the writing is! (Sarcasm is hard to hear over the interweb). But is that really true?
In writing the acknowledgements for my upcoming novel, the first time I’ve ever had to do this particular writing exercise, I was struck by just how many people have helped me along the way. I started my writing career during the middle of a rocket attack while lying face down in a puddle of muddy water inside a concrete bunker in Afghanistan. It wasn’t that I started writing then, I had been writing for a long time, but at that particular moment I decided I really WANTED to write. And for me that meant dropping an application in the mail for a scholarship at the Antioch Writer’sWorkshop (AWW). At the time I couldn’t afford to go without a scholarship, or more to the point, I couldn’t tell my wife that I was going to take precious dollars from our account to pursue this pipe dream of writing. As luck would have it, I won one of those scholarships and attended what would be a transformative week of writing. And so my writing career truly began not as a solitary act of sitting behind a keyboard, but rather at a workshop surrounded by many people like me…people who loved to write but still had one nagging question: were we actually writers?
That is a question that I long struggled with before my novel sold. How do I explain to other people what I’m trying to do? How do I describe myself to my parents, my siblings, my wife? I’m taking hours of my life to sit alone and do the solitary act of writing, and then hours more in meeting with other writers, trusted readers, and to make it to conferences. How do I justify it, especially when I had no idea if this whole writing thing would work out anyway? How do I tell when it’s pointless and time to pull the plug, throw in the towel, (insert overly used cliché here)…
Well, it took several years to truly come face to face with a good answer. This year at the Antioch Writer’s Workshop, we hosted AndreDubus III as our Keynote speaker and Master Class teacher. I had no idea what to expect from Dubus (pronounced like “abuse” with a “D” in front). So I did a little Google sleuthing, and I was amazed to find the perfect answer to that old question: Am I really a writer?
The video link above is less than two-minutes long and well worth the click. I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this same question. Even after selling my first novel I worry about it still. Will I pull it together for a second novel? Can I call myself a writer with just one book on the shelf? Well, if I listen to Andre, I was a writer long before I ever acknowledged it. “If you can go a year without writing”, he says, “and feel just fine. You’re not a writer. So what? It’s actually a good piece of news because now you’re free to find out what the hell you’re supposed to do.” But if you can’t, if you need to get in front of the keyboard and put the word onto paper, to dream a story and watch it take shape—you’re a writer, with or without the publications.
Dubus went on in his master class to give a unique outlook on writing (one I might try to capture in a future post), but he also revealed a broader perspective. “We are on this planet to find out who we are and to be it—to lead an authentic life.”
And so with a book deal in hand it might be easier to explain to Nancy why I still haven’t come to bed, it doesn’t actually change anything. I am a writer because I write, because I love to write even though I don’t always like to. I am a writer because I need to write.