[This is part of the How I Write series, and should be read between part 3 and part 4, but was written AFTER part 4, so I’ve designated it as 3.5, for those of you in the peanut gallery that give a rat’s ass about those kind of anal retentive thingys. Feel free to read any of my articles, in any order you please, and disregard my comments and suggestions altogether. As long as you’re here, and reading, I’m happy. Thank you for coming along for the ride. As always, you can click on the audio link below, if you’d rather listen to my amazing voice, instead of reading.]
“What have you written lately?”
That’s a question I get often, and I always pause before answering.
Well, I suppose it’s because I wonder about their definition of writing.
Why is it important to define the word? It probably isn’t, really, but in this particular case, it is. The problem with the question, is rooted in another question:
“Am I a writer? What does that mean?”
This stems from a modern myth about writers and writing, I think, and that myth is one of the lone writer, sitting in his wood-paneled room, books piled around (one pile probably has a human skull resting on top), the wind wafting through the screen door, blowing the curtains ever so gently into the room, the smell of old pipe smoke, and bourbon. You know, a Hemingway scenario. The writer is sitting at his desk, glass of booze, pipe in mouth, staring at his typewriter—or computer screen these days—wondering what the fuck he’s gonna write next. THIS is writing.
No, the fuck, it ain’t.
First off, the writer is just as often a woman or transgender person. It’s not only old, fat guys with tweed suits that write books and articles. Secondly, people write on the bus, in the library, in coffee shops—which is a new cliche—in the park, with a lark, on a train in the rain, with a mouse in a house. They write every-fuckin’-where that you can imagine.
That being said, I’m sitting in my office, with the curtains blowing in, pipes on top of the bookshelf, a fake skull on my desk, and the bourbon isn’t far away, but even I don’t drink at 5 o’clock in the morning. So, apparently, I’m a cliche, lol. I even have a Mr. Rogers, coat closet in my office, complete with a couple of sport-coats and my old Guinness t-shirt, so I can change from uber-comfortable look to my ‘writer’-cliche look as fast as you can say, “Bring me my shotgun and that glass of Evan Williams!” Oh well, fuck it. Whatareyagonnado?
All that aside, the most important misconception that people have about writing, is the image of the typewriter, or blank page on the computer screen. First off, most writers, real writers, don’t sit there staring at blank pages; they just fuckin’ write, they just fuckin’ start! (See episode 3 about the Blank Page Syndrome) Secondly, writing doesn’t usually start at the keyboard, or the typewriter.
The process begins in the mind, of course. We come across something we want to write about, and then we write. That moment often happens while we’re typing, but more often than not, it occurs in the middle of the night while we’re trying to sleep. Then we have to get up to find a pen and paper to write it down, or roll over and jot it on a PostIt note, or on Evernote on our smart phones.
When Does Writing Begin?
Let’s think about the word, for a moment. To write, means to actually put thoughts and words, or sounds, into a symbolic form: letters on a page, or in stone. These symbols you’re reading aren’t really words; they are only symbols standing in for words. Words are sounds, which are in turn, symbols for thoughts. The alphabet and the combination of those symbols allows us to record the real thoughts and words onto a page–be that paper or virtual–but those symbols aren’t the real things. They just help us to pass the real thoughts along to people at distance, or over vast space and time.
Writing is a technology
Yeah, that’s what I said. It is a tool by which we can express ourselves to other people without actually being in their presence to do it. We put the symbols on the page, they pick up that page, and translate the symbols back into words, and thoughts. If we do a good job of arranging those symbols, our thoughts and words will be understood in a similar way by the reader. If we do not, they will not, and chaos ensues.
That is my definition of writing. And with that definition, we can answer the question of “When does writing begin?”
The process of writing begins with the thoughts and words that form in our minds. This comes through experiences, research and reading, and thinking about a topic until we come up with something we think is important enough to actually write down somewhere. And that is where the process of writing, turns into actual writing.
For me, I’m not actually writing until I put something down on paper, and invariably it is paper. I’m not usually sitting at a computer when I begin to write. I can be in bed. I can be sitting in my comfy chair in the office, or at the breakfast table, or washing dishes, and an idea comes to me that I know I must write down or I’ll forget it, and I reach for the pen, and some paper. Once I write that idea down, I’m writing. Period.
Why is all this important?
I think, sometimes, we pause when asked “What have you written lately?,” because we feel like it only counts if our writing is in some organized form: an article, a poem, a book. But those are the FINAL forms of writing, the goal, if you will. It’s not the whole process, and it is self-deprecating and quite frankly, bullshit, to say, “Nothing much,” to the question of “what have you written lately?,” when we know that we’ve been putting pen to paper, daily, writing down ideas, working on outlines, brainstorming, and thinking about our topic. THAT IS WRITING!
But many writers, and pretty much everyone else, still buy into the idea that one isn’t writing until they’ve put organized words on an actual or virtual page, either via a typewriter—which most of us don’t use, of course—or on the computer. But that’s a very limited, modern view of writing; it’s only true for the last hundred years or so. It’s a new method of writing, not an old one.
For the first 7000 years of human, written history, writers didn’t have keyboards to type on, and certainly not computers. They chiseled their symbols into stone, in places like ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, and then on paper and vellum, in the palaces of Persia, and monasteries like Monmouth, where a monk, named Geoffrey, wrote his chronicles of the early kings of Britain, the first written work to mention Arthur. Those guys chiseled in the sun, and put quill to leather in dark chambers under candlelight. Were they not writers? Were Plato and St. Augustine just thinkers because they didn’t have a typewriter? Were Poe, and Dickens, and Twain just doodlers, because they only had pens and paper? Fuck no. They were WRITERS!
So, when someone asks you what you’ve written lately, tell them, “Shit tons!”
Let’s start owning it!
Instead of feeling self-conscious about the early stages of the writing process, let’s be bold, let’s be brave, and say, “I’m writing the next article, poem, song, or book that’s going to rock the fuckin’ world, and change the course of human-fuckin’, HISTORY!”
Stop apologizing for being a writer. Just BE ONE. Be the ball. Be a writer. Claim it; own it! It doesn’t matter that all you have at the moment is a pile of PostIts stuck to every corner of your office, or on your bathroom mirror. You are writing! As soon as you put the pen to that paper, you became a writer.
In a larger sense, anyone who’s ever written anything is a writer. But you know, and I know, that if you’re reading this article, you are a real writer, because you’re going to take those fuckin’ notes, legal pads, and scribbles in the margins of your newspaper, and turn them into masterpieces.
KEEP WRITING FRIENDS!
THE WORLD NEEDS WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY!