Tuesday, October 8, 2013

When to Be and When Not to Be a Writer

Some days you are all about being a writer. You wake up thinking of ideas or scenes, you prepare yourself to begin a long day of work, your head is all writer and nothing else can get into that head. Then there are days the writer sits in the back seat. You're on the road, say (the way I am now), and the travel is all consuming of your attention. The writer isn't gone. It's just sitting back there observing and taking notes you don't even consciously know about. I think it's just fine, maybe even necessary as a writer, to have intense stuck-in-the-work periods and less intense I'm-living-life-and-thinking-it-over periods. I'm experiencing the latter.

Over the years my husband has taken work as a long haul big rig driver. He's a professional, do not assume otherwise. If you've noted these behemoths on the highways, you can imagine what skill and finesse it takes to drive one safely. 

When he goes on the road, I go too. We like being together. After forty-five years we are synchronized. But most of all, we both share the love of being on the move. One of the reasons we moved around so much as a young couple (from California to New York to Alabama to Michigan to Florida to Alabama to...you get it) was our love of seeing and living in a new place. When our children turned school age we slowed down for their sakes. We still seemed to go from house to house, from one part of South Texas or around Houston to another. Poor kids. 

We can't help it. We get bored. Home is wherever we are and that is the truth. We even own our home in Texas, but home is still...wherever.

So we have taken out on the road again, in a big eighteen-wheeler, and the travel is fast and hard, bumpy and wild. I must tell you true--we don't do it for the money. We can use the money, sure, can't we all? But we don't do it for the money; we do it in order to be paid to travel. Ever notice the cost of gas? Will you be willing to spend thousands a year to be on the move across the USA every single day? It would cost a fortune. This is no RV travel, parking in bucolic campsites every night. Nor is this by car, spending nights in motels and hotels. This is the Rough Way and it has its delights, some of which I try to impart in my travel writing. Yes, I travel write. FROM A HIGH WINDOW is an ebook I published around 2011 and it is a compilation of my travel writing when on the road before. I'm not trying to compete with the great Steinbeck and TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY. I just write about where I am and what's happening and what I'm thinking. You're my friend. I talk to you.

I'm doing it again. TRAVELS WITH LYLE will be published after this adventure on the road and will reflect my impressions of America. 

Now let us return to the idea there are different periods of rest and unrest in a writer's life. I write, yes, about travel when on the road. But essay writing isn't the same as fiction writing so I don't think of it as real work. Maybe I think of it as a dialogue with the reader wondering about travel in the USA. A communication of another sort than what I am usually writing, which are fictional stories and novels. (Though those are as true as true can be too, no matter how much of it is made up.) 

My writer self is in the backseat. These are respites from the intense work I do when writing stories/novels. I am free to immerse myself in the living part of a life. When writing I don't care about "real" life. I don't think any of us do who write fiction. Are you speaking to me? I'm not listening, not really, even if my face is turned toward you and my gaze is on you. I'm not doing much more than living in my fictional dreams. I love it, we all love it, else we wouldn't do it. If you hear one of us complaining about how HARD it is to write, take out a rolled up newspaper and swat us in the head. It's not hard. It's play. It's all play time. Ask any writer who will be honest with you. The others might lie, but the honest ones will tell you we are children making up stories and it's a lot of fun and sometimes we get paid for it, we have readers and fans, God bless them every one, and we feel jubilation in accomplishing our goals--getting the stories told the way they need telling.

But even though it isn't hard to write fiction, it's consuming, and has to be to be any good at all. Real life dims. Real people dim. We aren't happy if interrupted. We don't especially like visitors or house guests and if you want the truth, we don't need anything from the real world but some food to sustain us and a bed where we can lie down our heads. We don't need the rest of that world. It's all dim. The real world is inside our heads spilling onto a screen (or notebook or tablet or typing paper--if you're old school and you're stuck in the 1970s)

Now the thing is these backseat writer days are often needful. If you are as intense a writer as I am, if you stick at it too long you burn out like a birthday candle. Fast. You flame like a comet, bright and brief. Can you use up a creative self? You can. You can see it swirl down the dark gullet of the Fiction God if you aren't paying attention and there, it will disappear, you will disappear. Some of us can go at it like a locomotive (I've been called prolific) and we can do that for years, two, maybe three, if we've the stamina even longer. We can even do it for ten years. Then we wake up one morning and the kids are older, (when did she get that haircut?), the husband is surly (when was the last time I told him how special he is in my life?), the plants are dead on the windowsill, and we're done, roll us over and stick us with a fork. That's when we rest and the writer climbs into the backseat, settles in and waves a lackadaisical hand at us as if to say, "Go on, live a little. I'll wait. I'm right here. Waiting."

Actually we never really stop. That backseat passenger notes all and tucks it away in the gnarly crevices of our minds for later use. That white sunrise I saw this morning? So white it was blinding. It hid behind and turned the clouds dark blue suit blue. I'll use that. (I already have--here and now.) Everything I see on the road, every conversation I hear, every sniffle, every angry glance, every sunrise and sunset, every feeling of awe at a view, all of it will be stored and I'll have it. It's my gravy. 

Meanwhile, however, I'm resting. You might not think riding high in a big rig is restful, but it is for me. I trust the driver, you see, he's a professional and he's the best. I am chauffeured throughout the land and how glorious is that?

Some writers never take a little break to turn around and look at the life passing them by. It has to pass us if we're writing. There is no "halfway" writing like there is no "maybe pregnant." You either are or you aren't and it's all-involving. I mentioned Stephen King, when speaking of this subject on my Facebook wall. And although I cannot truly speak with confidence about any writer other than myself, it appears to me the man has spent his life, almost entirety, writing fiction. After fifty books and hundreds of stories, when was there time for life, for living beyond the page? He mentioned once how irritated he got when his family interrupted and then he regretted missing some of his children's growing up days. I make no judgement about this. A writer does what he must do and King had to do what he has done. We, the readers, are all grateful for it, too. But the danger, as you can see, is you lose yourself into the fictional world and you lose whole years, whole segments, or you burn yourself out. Or, as Caren Widner Hanten said, you go mad. You don't know about mad writers? Then you don't know Hemingway blew his head off. And Fitzgerald drunk himself into oblivion. And there are dozens more I could use as example, but you get me. You go mad. Maybe you can't even take real life anymore. Not only has it dimmed (for you can make fiction extremely lively and brilliant and vivid), but it's deadened. It all speaks to you in the softest voice from a far distance. It stops meaning what it should. That is the only warning I'd have about that. Love the writing life completely, get totally immersed in it, but look up sometimes, look around, what are you missing and what do you need?

I need the travel. Seeing new places, new sunrises. I need the stimulation. Hardship? I've written novels and given birth to babies. Don't talk to me about any kind of hardship while traveling. Poo-bah. 

So look out for the publication of TRAVELS WITH LYLE. I know that's an audacious title and I already want to apologize to Steinbeck, but the title was given to me by Franklin Wales, a good writer friend of mine and now it has stuck. Deal with it. 

And if you can't go traveling, at least walk outside and see the sky, remember the stars over your head, touch the little hand of your child or grandchild, wink at your spouse and head for the bedroom for a romp, why not? Do something else while the thing in the backseat stays silent and takes all the notes for you. It's possible you'll be the better writer for it. I know I am.


  1. One of your best posts, ever! Really looking forward to Travels With Lyle and truly hope that those travels bring you close enough that we can finally meet. :)

  2. Thank you, Vix, and thank you for urging me to write this blog post. I dedicate it to you.