I have always written in diaries and journals. In the past dozen years, I have also become a blogger sharing my views on food, travel, and a range of other topics related to education. In the midst of all of this writing, I have never really considered myself a “real” writer. It begs the exploration of what a writer is in my mind.
As a blogger and educator, I have had lots of experience writing. I also have experienced the enjoyment that comes with the process of writing, bringing a project to completion, and publishing it to provoke conversation. I love to research, share information, and engage in debate. I can do that very effectively. I studied history and political science during my undergraduate degree. When I push the card, yes, I am a very good writer of non-fiction. I am also a reader. My true love, as my daughter framed it when she was 6 years old, is the “fat, sad book”. I read to learn new things, but I love to read fiction.
I recently reread Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. This was a completely different experience than reading this same book in my 20’s. The main characters in the story are in the 50’s and are looking back on their lives and the post-World War I reality in London. In my 20’s I was looking forward at my life, the impact of war and PTSD did not have the same kind of current day coverage or understanding. It is also a book that film has not been able to capture. As Carol Ann Duffy aptly notes,
“We carry poetry, even if we do not write it or read it, inside us and Woolf is a writer who can remind us of this or show us for the first time” (p. xii).”
The language that Woolf uses to express herself is powerful. Sometimes beautiful. Sometimes drawing out the familiarity of the trivial. Always perceptive. In describing Mrs. Dalloway:
“She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she didn’t mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her discrimination.” (p. 69)
Carol Ann Duffy goes on to say:
“She is able, through the suffered brilliance of her writing, to unlock for us what we mutely know. Her lyric intensity allows her, and us as her readers, to stand inside the lived moment…”
And that is what I consider a “real” writer. The author can transport the reader into the story or the book. The writer can create a story or characterization that draws us in. It may entertain. It may engage our deductive reasoning. It may allow us to empathize or even love or hate the characters that we get to know. When Septimus throws himself out the window, the despair and desperation are palpable. The suicide is obviously PTSD, not a well-reasoned decision or “sin” worthy of harsh judgement.
I want to write like Sena Jeter Naslund who made me miss the main character when I finished Ahab’s Wife. Or Margaret Laurence who ensured that Hagar from The Stone Angel was speaking to me when my treasured Nanny Keenan got dementia. Or Jane Austen who ensured I questioned expectations of me and unjust treatment by family. Or Edgar Allan Poe, who made me brave enough to face scary things. Or Agatha Christie who fine-tuned my deductive reasoning skills. Clearly, I want to be a writer of fiction.
I have no shortage of ideas or life experiences to write fiction. But the task is daunting. Perhaps it is the fear of writing badly. I listened to a particularly badly written murder mystery audiobook on the drive up to the cabin. The premise of the book was good. The ending was great. But I bemoaned the writing throughout the entire book. Heaven forbid that I write a bad book. Although I have been committing myself to writing regularly, I have not yet brought any of my fiction to the point where I would feel ready to submit it to a publisher. Many beginnings. Many endings. Many middle sections. Many drafts.
The best advice about writing is to find the time and discipline to write. I am reluctant to sign up for writing classes that will provide me with assignments that will divert my attention away from my own writing. I am also wary. My Nanny Keenan’s initial painting efforts reflected her perspective and were far better than her later post-painting class, paintings. My students who had the opportunity to develop their own voice were far better writers than those following cookie cutter lesson requirements. And so, I have squirreled myself away in a cabin in the woods, far from distraction and I’m writing. It is not lost on me that at this moment, I am deferring to my comfort zone, writing non-fiction.
Woolf, Virginia (2004). Mrs. Dalloway. Vintage Books, London.
Introductions by Carol Ann Duffy and Valentine Cunningham