So, You Want to be a Writer? Then Write!

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I spoke the other day to a group of high school students about writing. The students were polite, and several asked great questions. I enjoyed my 20 minutes with them, a number of whom I knew since daughter Abbie graduated last May from this small private school.

To kick things off after briefly outlining my checkered career, I asked this: “What is the one essential thing one must do to be a writer?” There were several interesting answers. Learn how to spell. Use complete sentences. (Notice I’m not doing that. It’s a rule I like to break on occasion.) Have lots of pencils. (Pencils? Give me a keyboard and a screen.)

Those are all tools that writers use, no doubt. But I told the students that the one thing a writer must do is this: Write. You are not a writer if all you do is talk about how you would like to be a writer. Over the decades that I have been slogging away at this, I lost count of the number of people who, after learning what I do, have said, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer.” Or, “I have this idea for a novel.” Or, “If I ever get the time…”

I always respond, as nicely as possible in my Yankee way: “Then go write.”

Writing is a solitary business. If one is driven to do so, it means shutting oneself off from the world to stare at a screen and peck away on a keyboard. Or scribble on a legal pad, pound away on a typewriter. The medium does not matter, just the message. But it can be hard on a family, or a spouse, to be attached to someone who feels compelled to shut the doors to the study several times a week, in my case crank up the music, and try to knock out some sentences. In my case, I don’t have a choice. I have to do this.

My late dad was an artist. He made his living painting signs, a craftsman widely acknowledged in the 1970s and 1980s as one of the finest in the area. But his passion was drawing and painting, primarily Western scenes, in a number of mediums: pen-and-ink, pencil, pastels, charcoal, oil, and silk-screened prints.

His routine rarely wavered. He would come home at 5 from the sign-painting gig and spend 30 minutes hanging out with his sons — playing catch, tussling with us. We would eat supper, after which he would head to the converted carport that was his studio. My dad would hover over his drawing board and sketch, paint, whatever, his cheap transistor radio playing country music in the background. My dad would stop in time to catch the 10 p.m. news with my mom, and then go to bed.

I am my dad in so many ways. But especially when it comes to that routine of heading to the drawing table after dinner, embracing the solitude, muddling through trying to, in my case, write something. In his case, paint or draw something in which he could take satisfaction. We are not much different in what drove us, but the mediums were. I am still driven, which is what I tried to steer home to those students. I am happy that drive still exists within me, however imperfect the product.

I told the students Anne LaMott’s “Bird by Bird” story from the book on writing by the same name. It remains my favorite book about writing, although Owen and Jodi Egerton’s recently published “This Word Now” is a close second. My daughter Mere gave me an autographed copy for my birthday. Heck, read them both.

Here is what LaMott wrote: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

That holds true not just for writing but for any major task or endeavor. Bird by bird.

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