Saturday, May 16, 2009

On Knowing You Are a Writer

In her book For Writers Only Sophy Burnham asks the question “When did you first know you were a writer? Did you always know?” Oftentimes, the writer is the last one to know.

I once edited a student writer’s essay; I’ll call him Larry. Larry was assigned a report, a factually supported essay about a problem within any culture that either lacked a solution at present or if the student so desired, a potential solution. The point was that I wanted the students all writing about a topic for which they felt passionate. Larry turned in anything but a report. His essay, if you want to call it that, rose to the level of edgy prose. Setting, dialogue, descriptive prose, narration, and expository writing, were all roughly lumped together in a story he told about a friend of his who had gotten into some trouble with the law. There were police dogs, local cops, guns, handcuffs, and a delightfully drawn character that was compelling and psychologically complicated.

When I selected a few “shine” papers to read aloud to the class, Larry’s mouth fell open as I read his name in front of his classmates. He was mystified. I was delighted. I had found a gem among the requisite essays and was the first person to tell Larry, “Yes, you are a writer and probably a novelist.” Hang the assignment! Larry was a storyteller and up until that moment, did not know.

For years as I struggled in misery in real estate, I recalled the day that Professor Francis Gwaltney, III pulled my freshman essay out of the stack and asked my permission to read it aloud. He asked me, “What is your major?”

My father had insisted that I major in elementary education. I told my professor and he said, “You’re no grade school teacher. You are a novelist.” Like Larry, I was mystified. His words nagged at me, nipping at my Nikes until the day I gave my words story form. Years later when I got my first little book deal I remembered Francis Gwaltney and was still mystified. How had he known that I was not simply a writer in the raw, but a novelist? As I read Larry’s essay to the class, I finally realized why. Author Francis Gwaltney, also Norman Mailer’s best friend, was at that time writing his thirteenth novel. He knew like I knew that Larry was a storyteller. Nothing profound, but it takes one to know one.

It could be that each of us write because we have been prodded into the writing arena by a writer who first saw within us a seed of potential. During the long nights as we bend over our keyboards writing for the audience of one, pondering words and their meaning, behind us is a voice of encouragement that won’t stop nagging at us to keep trying until we get it right. The words have formed like a thunder cloud overhead—you are not a baker, a butcher, or candlestick maker; you are a novelist and won’t be satisfied until your life takes the form for which you were made.

When did you know?