In So Many Words

Answering the unanswerable: “Why do I write?”

#Create365 – March 24, 2019

“For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word.”
– Catherine Drinker Bowen

Friends, neighbours and potential future enemies, I was born a writer. Now please note my words here, I did not say I was born to be a writer, I said I was born one. It’s as much a part of the patchwork quilt that is Mackenzie Clench as skin colour or the propensity to cry at the end of The Terminator. What? It’s quite moving.

Anyway, at this point you may be shaking your head at my apparently arrogant and insolent tone. Please dear reader, put down your metaphorical pitchfork. I will attempt to explain.

When meeting new people in social situations, we often encounter a question that can strike fear and trepidation in even the most seasoned veteran of the networking set:

“What do you do?”

The purpose of this inquisition is of course to ascertain your mode of employment, and some would say, determine your position in on unspoken social totem pole. It’s an innocent enough query, but it can cause anxiety in many people when they don’t know how to answer, or worse, fear they will be judged for that answer.

A Working Title

Western society puts a great deal of importance on job titles. Whether we realize it or not, most of us would look at the CEO of a corporation differently than we would a garbage collector. Even if pay scales were not a factor, and despite the relabelling of certain positions – instead of garbage collector, think Sanitation Engineer or my personal favourite from England, the whimsical “Dustman” – we have preconceived notions of the people who perform these jobs. These notions are certainly unfair and almost invariably erroneous, but they appear to be hardwired into our culture.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the arts. Ask any creative whether they consider themselves an artist, and you’ll get a range of reactions almost as varied as the work they produce. Some will cringe at the word, others will reluctantly agree. Some will make clear distinctions between an artist (someone who does creative work for their own amusement and gratification) and an Artist (note the capital A – someone who works as a professional artist and shows in a gallery). These attitudes can also be seen among writers. I’m constantly asked if I’ve been published, as if that single process could validate the moniker I use to describe myself.

I am a writer. It’s not what I do, it’s what I am. I said at the beginning of this essay that I was born a writer. What I meant by that phrase is that the mental processes that go into the creation of written work were present long before I knew what a pencil was, much less understood how it worked. How is this possible? I believe an analogy will be of service here.

The Eyes Have It

Most professional photographers will agree that, “thousands of dollars of kit does not an Annie Leibovitz make.” You’ll just be a schmuck with high-end gear. In order to get full use of the equipment and hopefully create beautiful images, you must first understand how to operate the camera correctly. Seems straightforward, but you’d be surprised how many people sell their services as professionals without the slightest understanding of the fundamentals of their profession.

However, I’d take this idea a step further. In order to be a truly great photographer, you must understand concepts such as light, shadow, composition and framing. Interestingly, none of these concepts even involves a camera. A photographer friend of mine once said that the best photography begins before you ever touch any equipment. It begins with your own eyes, and your ability to “see” the image you wish to create. The eyes are the key to the whole endeavour.

The Rhythm Method

Writing is no different. The craft of writing – putting one word in front of another to represent a coherent idea or concept – begins with the mind. The pen (or computer) comes much later. So how do you train the mind to be a writer? By reading voraciously and indiscriminately.

I began reading around age 4 or so. I don’t say that to boast, I’m simply pointing out how my mind worked. The meaning of the words I was reading was unclear, but I was developing an appreciation for the rhythm of words and sentences. All language has a certain cadence or rhythm. When you read an otherwise grammatically correct sentence and think, “That doesn’t sound right somehow,” you’re tapping into that sense of rhythm.

All writers have a rhythm in their work whether they realize it or not. It’s a fundamental part of their unique “voice.” Being able to tap into that rhythm at such a young age made me want to experience it again and again. To do that, I began to read with a rapacious hunger, a hunger that I’m happy to report remains insatiable. I will read everything from the back of the cereal box at the table to any book I can get my hands on. It’s a beautiful addiction indeed.

In Real Time

Despite all this, for years I never considered myself to be a Writer. (Note the capital “W.”) Indeed, I didn’t even attempt professional writing until my late 30’s. Part of the problem was that capital “W” I mentioned. I had created a scenario in my head where the term Writer was reserved for those lucky few who had gotten their work published. To my mind, amateurs like myself (interesting now how I can look back and hear in my mind how distastefully I would spit out the word “amateur”) were simply posers, pretenders who had no right to call themselves REAL writers. As you may suspect, this attitude was both flawed and quite silly.

Someone who’s work has been published can certainly lay claim to the title of “professional writer,” but the idea that they are somehow “real” is pretentious and absurd. You’re a writer if you write. It’s that simple. The term refers to the craft itself, not some societal norm that seeks to apply value to your contribution. Being published is certainly a laudable goal, and we all benefit when you share your carefully considered words with the world, however the idea of being “published” has changed considerably in the last few years thanks to self publishing and the world wide web.

When I finally embraced the craft, it felt like I was acknowledging a fundamental truth – writing isn’t something I do, it’s part of who I am. The words within waited patiently for me to finally get over the fear of judgement, the fear of being asked “Have you been published?” and of course, the fear of failure. It’s entirely possible that I will never be seen as a writer by others. I can live with that possibility, as long as I remain true to who and what I am.

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