TO BE OR NOT TO BE... a writer?

by Vanessa Chandler

I suppose you might be wondering whether or not you should leak your disjointed thoughts onto paper, though the thoughts may resemble a can of red paint that tips over and spreads far and wide without any discernable shape. Perhaps you are questioning, Am I a genuine writer? Maybe I’m just like everybody else who wants to write a book…

Let me share a few scenes from my own writing journey, and hopefully you will be encouraged to understand that if you are passionate about the written word, you are a writer indeed.

I wrote my first children’s story at six years of age, and my first novel at eleven. My mother still has the hand-written (and hand-decorated) copy hidden somewhere in a dusty attic. Of course the heroine of the novel was a princess. The hero? Take a guess—a prince. Everything about it was cliché, but it stemmed from the heart of a little girl who believed in two things: the art of story, and romance. Some say that writing is a naturally borne trait. Others declare that it is an art that can be learned with ample time and practice, and that if one possesses desire, that person can become proficient. I cannot say I know the answer.

What I do know is about myself. I imagined I was a beautiful girl in the midst of a noble tale as early as three years of age (my memory was triggered through my mother’s photographs of me twirling around in a white dress, singing magical songs in the garden). It was as if I innately knew that life was a giant story to be lived out, and that it was sometimes Utopian and sometimes cataclysmic. For me, there was no such thing as love without tragedy, evil without the conquering good, or even a saint who is inexorably punished out of fear, like Hester Prynne of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Vivid images ran through my mind like scenes from a storyboard. The concept of Story was, without question, an integral part of my life. I felt that if I was not living within something greater, life was black and white, without color or passion.

If I may be so bold (as an ever-learning professional) to share my thoughts, I would first state that the art of true writing flows from that which lies within. In other words, it is not forced. It stems from the heart. It is an expression of the author’s thoughts, dreams, wonder, and philosophical questions . . . spilled out onto paper in hopes that someone else might be moved into action to overcome the British slave trade like William Wilberforce, inspired to fall in love like Romeo, or drop to his knees and repent of evil like the Apostle Paul . . . you name it.

Every so often, those that come to me for help with writing believe that if they just lock themselves away and “get the job done,” they’ll arrive at a beautifully polished manuscript. Yes, writing is work. Writing is so much work, and so frustrating at times that you will want to pull your hair out and simply give up. However, before you even enter the stage of serious writing and then editing (which is where you will say time and time again, “Can I just be done?”), you must first live. You cannot paint a masterpiece with words unless you feel something inside that drives you to so fiercely communicate it to the world that “death do you part!” “Feeling first takes form within you,” says Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer, “If you haven’t got a feeling, you can’t write about it, let alone arouse it in somebody else.” [1] To not pursue life or feeling in abundance is death to a writer. Emotion, and allowing oneself to revel in its depth is vital in order to unearth a universal human experience (meaning the author’s prototype of the grander scheme of life) to pass on to the reader.

To be a writer, a creative person, you must retain your ability to react uniquely. Your feelings must remain your own. The day you mute yourself, or moderate yourself, or repress your proneness to get excited or ecstatic or angry or emotionally involved . . . that day, you die as a writer. [2]

Creative writers constantly imagine a myriad of make believe scenarios. It may be more work for you to develop fantastical situations, especially if you are more left-brained. But keep in mind that when people read, they want to experience. Take away the universal connection between author and reader and you’ve lost the reader by page two. No one wants to read a good idea without you showing the reader how that idea plays out. They want to encounter something new that engages their senses, even if they are merely reading a book like (let’s give it a make believe title) How to Cultivate Healthy Relationships. Regardless of genre, readers want to be absorbed in something, and the best mode or form to do that is through the Art of Story.

Leave a story out, and you’ve left out the practical understanding of Jesus’ thoughts in the New Testament. “How?” You might say. Jesus used the simple parable, the Art of Story, to teach spiritual principals that were difficult to understand. Submit fact without motivating emotion, and you have a doctoral thesis that is stowed away in the libraries of time, and never picked up outside of Academia. Despite your differing personality, the universal experience is something every author can provide since you are the only one in the world to live within your perspective. Don’t write what others say they want . . . write from who you are, from the love, tragedy, emotion, anger, hopelessness, and exuberance you’ve felt in the varied circumstances of your life, and you will captivate them, despite their initial protest.

“I don’t feel that passionately,” you might say. You may not be a touchy-feeling person, but until you take the passion you have for life and translate it into a desire and drive to study the craft of writing and the Art of Story, you will most likely give up just after beginning the writing process. C.S. Lewis’s advice in a letter to Arthur Greeves acknowledges this truth:

I am sure that some are born to write as trees are born to bear leaves: for these, writing is a necessary mode of their own development. If the impulse to write survives the hope of success, then one is among these. If not, then the impulse was at best only pardonable vanity, and it will certainly disappear when the hope is withdrawn.

Here you might complain in self-pity (as we all sometimes do), “Well, how do I cultivate that innate desire to communicate?” Recently, I reminisced in wonder when I pulled out an email from nine years ago that I had meticulously saved for reference (and carelessly forgot). My mother wrote to me about a published writer she had met, and provided his contact details. At the time, I was taking my first baby steps toward writing through developing stories for an AIDS prevention magazine for children. I was far from my final goal, which was to write an adult  novel. Of course, I didn’t follow up with the contact, and I forgot the author’s name. When I reread the email, while going through some of my old short stories, I realized that the man my mother had mentioned is someone I had just to work with. When I reread the author’s name, I began to laugh . . . In a mere eight years, I have gone from being an English teacher who wrote short stories and poems, to a freelance writer and editor for private clients, to a writer and editor for publishing companies, to writing my first novel, to starting my own publishing company! When put in perspective, I have accomplished a great deal. How is that possible?

It began with a thought. One thought as I walked on a treadmill in a gym while watching the Olympics. Olympic athletes train hard. They sacrifice everything for their dream. They get up at the crack of dawn and push their bodies to the limits. And they don’t give up pushing themselves until they’ve competed and at least attempted to win. I wish I had something to sacrifice for like that…

 

And then I knew. I already had that “one thing.”

My dream of writing a novel.

Up until that point, I constantly talked about my novel, but only worked on it when I felt “inspired” (my excuse was that the philosopher Plato said we must wait for inspiration that comes from above . . . so, I had been waiting, and waiting, and waiting).

 

When I encountered the truth of my predicament, I made a conscious effort to work extra hours at the library night after night to make progress. Then, I forced myself to be courageous enough to show my text to a few people—one of whom was a small-time producer in Santa Barbara—the luxurious beachfront area above L.A. (where in my mind, everything related to media would “happen” for me). The presentation of my dream to the producer caused him to offer me a job, which led me to move to Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara opened up a world of new clients, which in turn led me to working as a freelancer for three different publishing companies, and also provided opportunity to meet private clients. One of these clients paid me so well that I went to Europe for a month—just so I could tread the same soil that my make-believe characters did in the giant adventure story within my novel. Interestingly enough, this client is also now our first published author through Red Arrow Media. The ardent pursuit of my novel led me to contract a literary agent, who encouraged me to actually finish the book (a difficult task for all of us). There I stand. I have finished my novel and it will be released soon. Meanwhile, I have helped countless others reach their dream through Red Arrow—the first being the private client who invested in my world travels.

That being said, I believe that no matter how difficult you feel writing may be, chipping away at it and learning its craft will carry you to your dream as water carries a wind-blown blossom from a tree. Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist says, “When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person realize his dream.” [3] My journey has been long-suffering. There was a particular week as a freelancer when several projects were canceled due to the economy. I suffered. I had no money for groceries. But somehow (as it always happens), a friend knew of my need without me saying a word, and gave me one hundred dollars. Your journey may be more difficult and painstaking than you think it’s worth. That doesn’t give you an excuse to evade your dream.

Finally, in case I have not already inspired you, let me give you the core values a writer must live by, and then I will leave you in peace (or in turmoil of thought).

  1. Never, ever give up. Rejection is a common occurrence in this industry. Take the rejection as a learning experience. Revise, and revise again! “These are the times that wring a writer’s soul. To know you can do it, and yet fail . . . however brutal the pain of failing, you never really fail at something until you stop trying.” [4]
  2. Believe not only in yourself, but also in your writing. As Marjorie Holmes says, “Every talent . . . must be backed up by a burning belief in your own ability.” [5]
  3. Don’t take naysayers comments personally. There will always be someone (and sometimes publishing houses) that doesn’t appreciate your voice.
  4. Don’t cheat yourself or your audience. Practice, rework your text, and rewrite as many times as it takes until it becomes excellent.
  5. Get over yourself and your talent. As Robert McKee shares in Story, “When talented people write well, it is generally for this reason: they’re moved by a desire to touch the audience.” [6]
  6. Solicit help from trustworthy experts and friends. “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips” (Proverbs 24:26).

 

[1] Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965),?.

 

 

[2] Dwight V. Swain, Techniques . . ., 13-14.

 

 

[3] Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 121.

 

 

[4] Marjorie Holms, “Formula for Success,” The Writer, November 1982, 9-11, 23.

 

 

[5] Ibid.

 

 

[6] Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 7.