Becoming the Writer

I have a theory: anything that we do on the outside has to have happened first on the inside. Before I could go to graduate school, I had to become the sort of person who could go to graduate school. I’ve always found that the internal change precedes the external one. When I tried to go to graduate school before I was ready, it didn’t work.

I think the same thing happens with a novel: in order to write a particular novel, you have to become the sort of person who can write that novel. And of course the process of writing the novel changes you as well. But you have to become the writer. The novel comes out of the writer that you are, and if you’re not ready, the novel won’t work.

I’ve had such a ridiculously busy week, and I’m so ridiculously tired, that I don’t know if I’ll be able to express this in the way I want to. But first you have to become the writer who can write a novel — any novel. I’ve seen friends of mine try to write novels and fail, in part because they didn’t believe in their own capacity to do it. You have to believe in your ability to complete a significant process. You can’t psych yourself out. There’s a certain level of confidence you need to write anything of that length. I think what convinced me I could do it, more than anything else, was completing the doctoral dissertation. If I can do that, I’m pretty sure I can write a novel.

And then you have to become the person who can write that particular novel. For the novel I’m writing, that means in part being a person who has done her research, who knows that particular time period. I got that from my PhD: I studied late nineteenth-century England. I know what people were wearing, what they were discussing. But the process of research is ongoing. There is so much I need to know, in order to move my characters around in that world convincingly. And then, I need to become a person who can write about young women who are social outsiders, who have family problems, who have problems with self-image and self-esteem. There’s no way to research that. It’s all knowledge I have from growing up in a certain way, in a certain family. From having been the person I am. But also from having become the writer I am, which is a writer who is aware of those things, who has thought about them, who can translate them into characters.

Writing takes a strange combination of arrogance and humility. I’ve seen writes so humble that they don’t believe in their own abilities. Some of them are very good writers who have difficulty completing longer projects. I’ve also seen writers so arrogant that they are not able to see outside themselves, to truly understand other people. Some of them are very good at completing projects, but not actually very good writers. Both arrogance and humility can be learned, and I think becoming a writer means learning whichever one you’re missing. I know that, in order to write this novel, I need both.

I recently saw and reposted this photograph:

I think it’s an excellent image for what it feels like to write a novel. You have to trust that the birds will hold you up, even though there’s no ground under your feet.

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12 Responses to Becoming the Writer

  1. Brian Holguin says:

    Lovely. I find you also have to trust the birds to lead you in directions you weren’t planning to go.

  2. Emily Gilman says:

    The bit about needing to believe you can do it makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve been calling my current project “the novel-thing” for years now because I didn’t feel comfortable calling it a novel; if I called it a novel I knew I would psych myself out, but if it was just a novel-thing then that was less pressure. And I remember very distinctly the moment when I suddenly knew what the basic structure of it was, beginning middle and end, and could write it down in my notes. It was like something clicked, and for the first time I knew that I could actually do this.

    • Emily, I’ve decided that my next novel is going to be brilliant. Not this one, the next one. And then, when I’m writing that one, I’ll decide that the next one will be the brilliant one, so that I’ll never actually have to be brilliant on the one I am currently writing. Brilliance will always be one novel away. That’s one way to avoid psyching yourself out! πŸ™‚

  3. sarah says:

    Such a great point you make here. And I agree with you on the issue of arrogance/humility too.

    As for the birds, I find that a writer has to be the kind of person who is willing to tolerate metaphorical bird droppings in their hair.

  4. >Writing takes a strange combination of arrogance and humility.>It’s all knowledge I have from growing up in a certain way, in a certain family.<<

    This is also excellent, and I think it lies at the heart of originality.

  5. Oh yes. It’s arrogant to say, “I have written a novel.” Sort of like trying to say I am so
    ‘special.’ I abhor that. But a novel is indeed what we get by following a mystery, what
    the novel wants to be. I am not sure Poor Novel #1 is that bad and I didn’t burn it as one bright writer friend did, which horrified me. He was so gifted but feared the stern
    demands of writing. Like, there isn’t much money in it. Well, I accepted that.

    I love the idea the novel comes when It wants to and you just have to hang on for you don’t know how high those birds will take you.

    My novel came slowly and as a surprise. I became obsessed with late 19th century trains. Growing up in the West, I always knew I had an inside track to how much funnier and more literate a lot of pioneers were. I was surprised to find out my Holliday grandmother had not gone to Idaho in a Wells Fargo Stage or some kind of wagon. As a little girl she went from Iowa to Idaho on a train though not a luxury train. I became fascinated with late 1800’s luxury trains;I also with Pullman Porters, some former slaves and how they formed a kind of elite status and eventually, a union.

    All this was research. I didn’t know that until the ‘click’ of What If?

    Well, I followed my bliss. So now I have a novel, but what next? The ghost of Poor Novel #1 hangs around. I now see the timing of that was bad. I had so much to do I had little time to keep sending it out. I now know I need a back-up, a new story, a
    set of poems to share the poet/fabulist role and being my secretary, which is just a job. Sell. Don’t sell. Carry on.

    And I remember Isak Dinesen died while she was writing a version of Scheherazade.
    To quote “Galaxy Quest.” “Never surrender! Never give up!” (Or the reverse. I’m never sure.)

    • Yes, it’s always about going on to the next project. πŸ™‚ I also have a novel I wrote in Law School in a drawer somewhere. I think every writer who eventually becomes successful has those early novels!

  6. Stephen J. says:

    Well said, and thank you for the encouragement.

  7. jazzyjac says:

    Someone sent me the link to your blog today and this is the second post I have read. Thank you for writing it when you were tired !
    I have half of what I laughingly call the Great Novel residing in a drawer and somehow it has never got finished. I have made lots of excuses to myself and others, who have read what there is, but lately I have come to understand exactly what you say, I simply have not been ready. I feel somehow that ready is nearly here now and that brings me up against what you described which is the excessive humbleness ( I prefer that to humility, it describes how I feel better ! ) I have always read widely and a lot, and for years have chosen the books I read quite carefully. Sometimes from reviews, or from prizes they have won such as the Booker or the Orange…. , or by authors whose work I love, . and the classics of course. And I read something utterly marvellous and get disheartened because I know that I couldn’t have written like that

    So there goes another month or two !

    When I write, I write funny and I don’t mean to, somehow what is in my head comes out on the page amusing, even I can see that. so how do I come to terms with accepting that I am unlikely to write War and Peace but possibly I could write something that would make a woman smile while sitting on a plane or on the beach !
    Maybe I should just finish it ( I think some of it is OK ) and my next novel will be brilliant πŸ™‚

  8. Thanks for a beautiful and typically insightful post.

    You pinpoint with almost clinical accuracy the inner dilemma, the tossing of the unpredictable waves of thought-emotion, that a writer – at least this writer – has to negotiate daily.

    When I am arrogant enough to feel I can do it and do it well, I wrestle with anxiety that I am deluding myself. When I am humble and sure that I could never do it, I feel a surge of defiance urging me on.

    Every time I am to begin a story, I am afraid that it will be my last idea, that I will tell it all as a jug pours out wine and then is emptied.

    Arrogance and fear and humility meet constantly in arms on the battlefield. In the end, it is always discipline who wins. It is Grim Determination who rallies all these opposing forces together to fight the same battle against the common foe: that it will not be; that one might die and become nothing having done nothing, have written nothing.

    So, I write and struggle and fail and try again and write and write and become the writer, time and time again, to my astonishment, that can and did write that story.

    Thank you.

    (Incidentally, I would never allow such florid, untamed prose into my fiction – actually I might!)

  9. Robert Evert says:

    I think you really hit the nail on the head when you talk about doing the research. Writing doesn’t start when you sit in front of your computer, but when you open books to read.

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