There are nine and sixty ways to construct tribal lays and every single one of them is right.
In other words, there are no answers in here. I am not even sure of what the question is. What is writing? What makes a writer? Any number of people, some of whom have names with a very high recognition factor, have been quoted as saying many things about the art of writing, the craft of writing, the toil of writing, the background and the underside and the clay feet of writing – and, through those quotes, as much has been revealed about the kind of people who are driven to pursue this strange and wonderful obsession of a vocation as about the vocation itself. “Writing books,” said H.L. Mencken, that most quotable newspaperman, “is certainly a most unpleasant occupation. It is lonesome, unsanitary, and maddening. Many authors go crazy.” This is probably because, as writer Jules Renard opined, “writing is a profession where you keep having to prove your talent to people who have none.” Science fiction guru Robert Heinlein appears to agree with the “unsanitary” definition as laid down by Mencken, because one of his own most frequently quoted quips about writing describes it as “…not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”
So why write? Writers get one of two reactions from other people when they confess to being practititioners of that odd profession – hero worship, or recoil. There are, alas, more than enough people who would like to be writers; many of them, however, have very little wish to actually write – all they want out of it is the licence to go out into the street looking fashionably scruffy, to lay claim to an interesting past and a moody present, to wear their hair long and poetic and to be able to stike poetic poses in order to attract starry-eyed groupies of the opposite sex. The recoilers often fall into the category of prospective parents-in-law being presented with a child’s choice of partner in the form of someone who doesn’t look like (s)he will ever be able to earn an honest dollar in an entire lifetime. It isn’t a nice attitude, but unfortunately it is not one that is entierly unfounded. Unless the partner in question is Stephen King, an average first novel advance is usually enough to buy two weeks of groceries for a human being and just enough Kibble to prevent the cat from hightailing it to the home of the neighbour whose accountant’s salary stretches to better cuisine. We won’t even talk about the steep downward spiral of earnings applicable to the writer of short stories, or magazine articles – freelance rates are laughable, with magazines like “Good Housekeepign” still paying the exact same word rate as they were more than twenty years ago which means that in real terms their rate has actually declined considerably. And they are considered one of the better markets. Rates of a couple of cents a words are not uncommon, and even those payments are often made “on publication”, which can mean waiting up to a year for something like a couple hundred dollars.
So I won’t even try to justify why anyone else should write. It’s hard enough to explain why I do it myself. The words, “because I have to, because I have always needed to” don’t seem to go far enough to cover the multitude of shallows that I – that any writer – has to steer around in order to reach the true ocean where sails can be unfurled to catch the kind of wind only dreamed of by those whose fear keeps them on the shore. But having just said that, I read over that last sentence and what I see in it is the reason I reach for those oceans. Masefield, inevitably, comes to mind:
I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by…
To some of us, to me, writing is simply just that – a guiding star.
Perhaps things could best be dealt with by answering a few of the most frequently asked questions. I’ll stick with an old journalistic tradition and go the Who-What-Where-Why-How route.
WHO AM I?
I Am A Writer.
I’ve known for some considerable time that I have been put on this earth to string words together; a friend of mine once said of me that I absolutely need to do only two things in my life – breathe, and write. I’ve told stories since I could wrap my infant throat around words; I taught myself to read when I was younger than four years old in my mother tongue and then, when I was ten, learned a whole another language and graduated from reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five to reading the unabridged “Forsyte Saga” by Nobel Prize winner John Galsworthy in less than three years. In the last thirty years of my life I have read thousands of books. I own most of them; my bookshelves bulge alarmingly, are often three layers deep, and are more often than not very obviously “loved” which puts paid to alarmed queries by visitors as to whether I have ‘read all those books’.
I was born in a country which no longer exists, and of which I have written many times, in various forms. My father left the country to pursue work with international consulting agencies, which meant my growing up in exotic places and being educated in any number of schools – where, with the help of an eideic memory and quick mind, I developed no working habits whatsoever and nearly fell ambarrasingly flat on my face when I got to University and had to learn some in a hurry to cope with the curriculum. At University I took a couple of degrees in Microbiology, Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, and related subjects, and then decided I would rather write about science than practise it and spent the next few years working as Production Editor for the learned journal of ALLSA (the Allergy Society of South Africa) before moving from South Africa to New Zealand. There, I found work as an editor for an international educational publisher while writing on the side for local newspapers and magazines (book reviews, journalism, travel features, poetry,and other stuff), academic publications (I worked for a while for the University of Auckland), and pursuing book-length publication. More about all that later.
I’ve been told by the man who would become my husband that what he loved about me was my capacity to enjoy life. Perhaps this is part of the writer mentality; no less a luminary than Emile Zola once said : “I am here to live out loud”. I have a passion for living. I do take great delight in a purring cat; a tree clothed in the full green of summer or the glorious autumn raiment of fall; the scent rising from a rich chocolate cake; the glimmer of sunlight on water, or its sparkle on frosted snow. My world is a full and sensual place. It needs to be, for otherwise I could not write of anything at all.
WHAT DO I WRITE?
One of the most common questions aimed at writers, and one which makes most of them groan in despair at the sheer lack of comprehension it reveals, is the ubiquitous “Where do you get your ideas?”
The answer to that is literally that I pull them out of the air. They occur around me. Sometimes I dream them. They are part of the fabric of my life. They knit and weave themselves into what has turned out to be a wide-ranging body of work. I have a bibliography which is being kept up to date on my website, www.AlmaAlexander.com - go there and have a look…
WHERE DO I WRITE?
Currently, in an office looking out over cedar woods which often has wandering deer coming up to the window and looking in on me. Before that, in a converted outbuilding which used to be a garage, in an office with a desk which used to be a door and which I shared with my co-author, partner, and husband. Before that, in a cubbyhole just large enough for me and my computer which was set aside as a “study” for me in the house in New Zealand which I shared with my parents. Before THAT I was no more than a kid who mostly wrote long-hand in vast piles of hard-cover notebooks and stored them higgledy piggledy in drawers and cabinets.
I always write surrounded by books.
If you have a mental image of a writer’s office sonsisting of a mahogany desk and wall to ceiling bookshelves filled with volumes bound in gleaming gold embossed leather… you’d be wrong. You can keep the books, and the bookshelves, but they’re a mess of volumes archived in arcane ways known only to me. I have a comfortable chair, and I am surrounded by untidy piles of scattered paper which can consist of submission guidelines for three or four new markets that I wish to try with my work, notes and previous incarnations of at least two works in progress, scribbled down phone numbers and addresses of potential clients and contacts, reference material,Post It stickies with notes to myself and mysterious website addresses scrawled on them, calendars, computer disks, red pens, and the occasional unpaid bill clamouring for my attention.
If my desk is ever neat, that is a sign of the most profound writers’ block. Under normal cicumstances I don’t have time to dust around my paper piles.
WHY DO I WRITE?
At the first science fiction convention I ever attended I was lucky enough to get into a writers’ workshop co-hosted by the con’s two guests of honour, Vonda McIntyre and the late great Roger Zelazny. The latter had been one of my personal literary gods for years, and I quailed not a little at the prospect of having him read my story and actually COMMENT on it for me. When it came to my turn in the workshop, Zelazny handed me back my manuscript almost unmarked. He turned those penetrating pale eyes of his on me and said, “I have two questions.”
“First, how long have you been writing?”
I said, about as long as I could consciously remember.
“And second, do you read and/or write a lot of poetry?…”
I admitted to this sin. He nodded.
“It shows,” he said to me, this man whom I admired and whom I am to this day grateful to have had the opportunity of meeting before cancer took him only a few months after this occasion. “You have a voice all your own. Nobody else will ever write this way.”
Every time I ask myself why I write, this is the answer I give myself. I write because nobody else will ever write the way I do. How valuable my writing is to others is for them to decide – for me, it is everything. It is what I am. I am my voice, and nobody else will ever speak with it but myself.
HOW DO I WRITE?
“Writing is easy,” said writer Gene Fowler. “All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
Well, all right, it isn’t that bad. Usually. But there are times when the blank page is not so much inviting as intimidating and one’s first impulse is simply to flee. At times like these I try and follow the writing dictum of William Quick, whose advice is “Write a word. Then write another.”
There are writers who write with discipline. I wish I was one of them. They get up in the morning, have breakfast, sit down at the computer and treat writing like any other working day – they sit and write for eight hours. I admire that, deeply. I do. I just can’t do it. For a start I am a procrastinator; there are always other things I find myself doing, especially to avoid returning to a piece of writing which is, for any reason at all, difficult at the moment. Then there are distractions like the Internet, with all that email I have to answer before it goes stale or something. If you’re a net person you know what I mean. A Chinese writer, Su Shih, has described the process thus: “My writing is like a ten gallon spring. It can issue from the ground anywhere at all. On smooth ground it rushes swiftly on and covers a thousand li in a single day without difficulty. When it twists and turns among mountains and rocks, it fits its form to things it meets: unknowable. What can be known is, it always goes where it must go, always stops where it cannot help stopping -- nothing else. More than that, even I cannot know.” I can identify with this. I do not write my stories so much as allowing them to use me to get themselves written. If a character tells me that I am doing something wrong I will defer to the character. Other people seem to think there is something strange about talking to fictional characters but I do it all the time. I couldn’t write a work of fiction without their help.
There are writers who write with discipline. I wish I was one of them. They plot out a novel, work out a scaffolding, and start building their literary “house” in a neat and methodical manner. I cannot do that, either. I have never been able to write to a plan. The best stories know far more about themselves than I could ever hope to, why should I try to force them into channels where they do not naturally go? Besides, there is something deeply fascinating about finding out what happens next in the story that you are writing. That’s what makes it half the fun.
And okay, one more, just to justify your having stayed with me this far:
HOW DOES ANY OF THIS HELP ANYONE ELSE?
If you’ve stuck it out this far, you are a writer – at the very least, a potential one. So how does any of the above help you in your endeavours?
It probably doesn’t.
But reading about other writers and how they work is a part of your heritage.
There are a number of classical pieces of advice often meted out to young writers which, if followed to the letter, would probably mean the extinction of writing as an activity of the human race. For example, the hoary old “write what you know”. While, on the face of it, it is good advice – people unacquainted with names of surgical implements will do very poorly writing about brain surgery – it is to be taken with a pinch of salt, or possibly rephrased into “write what you have researched”. Research covers a multitude of sins of omission, and is easier than ever these days if you have access to the Internet where you can find out anything about anything. But the best training ground for writers is life, and life experience. “If a young writer can refrain from writing, he shouldn't hesitate to do so,” said French writer Andre Gide. As a young writer, I would have taken great umbrage at that, and rightly so – but how much richer, how much more real my writing has become once I started living life and learning from it. You need to practise living as well as writing. Read a lot of books. Talk to people. Dream big. Those of us who make writing into a career do it so that other people will read what we produce and pay us enough for it in order for us to keep the cat in Kibble for one one more week, at least. But, even given this ultimate aim in mind, write for yourself. Write what you would want to read. Write your passion. The rest will come.