Writing is one of the few things that most anybody thinks they can do or at least say they want to do. Doing it well….that’s a different story. For that matter, actually doing it at all is a different story.
Some of you have read my story about how I accidentally became a screen writer. While I love movies, screenplay writing never entered my consciousness. Not only have I actually written one, I am now putting off writing the second one by composing this post instead. Clap if you have been there.
Dan Jenkins, former sports writer and hilarious author of many books and screenplays, moved back to his hometown of Fort Worth in the 1980s. As a young woman, I ran into him one day and asked for his autograph and told him I “want to be a writer.” He signed my napkin, which was all I had to offer. After he left I saw that he had also given me some personal, private, and moving advice on writing. “The trick to writing is doing it,” Dan Jenkins. I’ve lost the napkin, but the advice has haunted me. As it probably will now haunt most of you. You’re welcome.
Helen Simpson keeps a Post-It on the wall in front of her desk saying “Faure et se taure” (Flaubert), which she says she translates for herself as “Shut up and get on with it.” I would add, “Put all that stuff floating through your head, or that you are talking out loud to yourself about, on paper,” Carol Lennox.
When a table read was done of my screenplay, my friend, screenwriter and author of “Blowing Up Rachel,” Rachel Stevens, was the first to critique. She said, “Put it away. Don’t look at it again for at least six months. And write six more.”
So, there you have it. Just frikkin write.
Except, a saying attributed to several different writers, including sports writers Red Smith and Paul Gallico and even Heminway is, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter open a vein and bleed.” “Aye, there’s the rub,” Shakespeare.
What good is writing if it doesn’t cause you pain? Or joy? Or if you don’t arouse pain or joy or tears or laughter in your readers? How good is writing if it doesn’t connect us in some way with our humanity? Both the writer’s and the reader’s humanity. It’s not good at all. While we writers and readers enjoy when other writers appeal to our intellect, good writing must also create a reaction in the heart and gut. And that is not intimidating AT ALL.
When I was a child and teen aspiring to be a writer, I despaired of ever being as good as my favorites: John Steinbeck, Madeline L’Engle, Robert Heinlein, Harper Lee, Zora Neale Hurston, Doris Lessing, Joseph Heller and Flannery O’Connor. They each brought me pain and joy and tears and laughter. (In the middle of “Catch 22,” I threw it across the room in a reaction to what was happening to the main character). And because I despaired of walking in their footsteps, I gave up. It wasn’t that opening the vein was too hard. It was finding the courage to “compete.” Even though, as I now understand, competing is not the point. It’s true, I would not be as good as those famous writers. It is also true, that I could be good as myself, by opening the vein and telling the stories that matter to me. By imagining things happening to my fictional characters that actually happened to me, or the people I am close to, or to those who tell me their stories. And by sometimes imagining how things could have turned out differently with a little foreshadowing, some different choices and decisions, and perhaps even a deus et machina or two. (I’m thinking Aunt Beast from “A Wrinkle In Time,” if a nurturing Beast can be considered a deus ex machina. What do you writers think?) (Those who saw the most recent movie can’t answer that. They left her out. One of the most important characters. Which is one reason I had never aspired to screen writing.)
I’m still better as a non-fiction writer. I’ve been published in newspapers and magazines and pamphlets as a writer of other people’s true life experiences. I’m comfortable there, and I know how to pull heartstrings with true life descriptions. But I can’t really be funny there, which is a real drawback. And yet, while I can inject more humor more easily into fiction, fiction has been harder than non-fiction for me. However, as I reflect on my writing the true stories of real people, the same rules apply. Tell the story in a way that moves the reader. Tell it in a way that connects the reader to their own humanity and the humanity of others. Most of my empathy was born from putting myself in the shoes of the characters in the books I was reading, and for me that is the true goal of writing.
So then, does it matter how many hours or minutes a day we sit at our computers and write? I only know two things. You must write from your heart and gut to appeal to your readers’ hearts and guts. And you will never produce the next great novel or screenplay or drama or poem if you don’t ever sit down and write. For as long as it takes. Because the trick to writing is doing it.