For many years I said that I wanted to be a writer; it took me a long time to begin to say I am a writer. And I don’t say it just because I wanted it to be true, but because I became aware of how carefully I wrote whatever I wrote: the notes I took in class, the answers I wrote on exams, the book reports and research papers. Many-paged letters, always on college lined notebook paper with blue ink, and perfectly written–if I made a mistake, I tore up the page and wrote it again, developing flawless penmanship and spelling. Journal entries. Poetry. My mind always knew I was a writer; I still express myself better in writing than in conversation.
I know you can debate endlessly over whether to call yourself an author or a writer; either one is fine in my book (ha!) So a writer I am. And a poet. (And a lot of other titles, but that’s another story.)
An old friend who also wrote, and wrote very well, discussed many things with me and I learned more from him than from many classes I’ve taken in the years since then. He always reminded me that ‘a writer writes, always,’ and I have certainly found that to be true. The more I write, the more I want to, and the more I want to, the better it eventually becomes. I like seeing how far I have already come, and know I have miles to go….more than that, I like knowing that I can do it, that I have what it takes and that I won’t ever stop this craft. It really is who I have become, if not who I always was.
But a writer also reads. A lot. It’s as important for development and growth as any writing exercise. And I have been doing that forever, voraciously and continuously. So I thought it was interesting to see how much bothers me now if/ when I read it, things I might not have noticed so quickly a few years ago. Like what? Glad you asked. Like one author whose work I truly like–I have all her books–but who obviously had body issues: in every one of her novels, the female character will always be called “Slim” by some other character. Even though no two books have the same characters, that is a recurring theme: how lean she is. As I found that in each of her successive books, it began to annoy me. (Having read some of her autobiographical work, later, and not just her fiction, I learned that I’d nailed it: she has struggled as I suspected. I think she may have overcome it, because in her most recent release, there was no mention of that at all, and I found myself thinking, “Good for you!”)
Another author never ever writes about any house in any of her books that does NOT have heart pine floors. No oak, no parquet, no tile, no carpet, no linoleum. Again, it annoyed me. In both cases I almost began to feel that the authors were using some sort of template, and just filling in bits here and there to weave together a new story.
I once did wrote an outraged letter to an author who went far beyond that, when I came home eager to read her newest book, and found that entire pages were word-for-word the same as pages in previous books; descriptions of a party menu, a fancy gown, even the decor of a nursery. I actually wrote a ‘how dare you!’ as in how dare you disappoint your readers…if you have nothing new or fresh, stop writing. Of course I never heard anything back, but I felt better for having expressed it.
It’s even so simple, though, as grammatical errors. “Grizzly” and “grisly” are two very different words, and they are not interchangeable. Words misspelled. Bad punctuation. Doesn’t anyone edit with a red pencil anymore? (I know, I know…)
And I remember those things, now, when checking and editing my work. Because when you are reading a new book, you really want it to be new, and not feel that you’ve read this before; even in a series, each book has to feel fresh and new. When I began asking for critique of my novel in progress, that was my most important question: “Do you feel as if you have read this before?” Because if they did, if it seemed too predictable, it wouldn’t be as good as I wanted, and as I believed it could be. If I am reading something that makes me impatient, makes me want to skip ahead as in a let’s get to it kind of thing, it reminds me to edit more tightly, see what needs to be pared down, like so many clippings falling to the floor.
I have read some passages–one in particular comes to mind in a novel by Anne Rivers Siddons, so beautiful that I could not only see the room she described, I wanted to move into it–that are flawless and need every single word to make them so. I’ve read others that could have used half the lines, and been better for the tightness. And I know that good books need both kinds of work. Some have pages and pages of dialogue; some are mostly interior, and in both cases, each style has to be just right, so the conversation feels genuine, and so the inner monologue becomes your own.
So much to learn. So much enjoyment in the learning, and in the work. It really is what makes me know it’s just fine to say I am a writer.