The Writing Life: starting with words
A Monday. A familiar morning scene: I'm sitting near an open window with a cup of coffee in hand and this journal; writing here because, alas, I have no Great American Novel or some deep philosophical tract to distract me; because, at least, it is putting words to paper, my so-called occupation, profession, avocation, hobby, pursuit of life, whatever. That is, I'm just what I've been driven to do: document my life and life around me, no matter how lame and insignificant it is from the perspective of self-imposed exile on the American High Plains. I've simply been doing what I feel/have felt that I must be doing: a life passage, or rather, the passage of a life by word.
I didn't come to writing in retirement, as a hobby, or even as a job to put food on the table. It came to me much like a disease might, unnoticed, unwanted, incurable, not even clearly diagnosed. No doctor instructed, "Write two poems and call me in the morning." No father admonished, "Be a journalist and take responsibility for yourself." No mentor advised, "Write a great novel and become a celebrity." There were plenty who have said, "Do something with your life. If you're going to write, be a writer we want to read. Be something we can identify and be comfortable with."
It was never as simple as that. Writing came to me as a kind of self-definition. It was not about what and how to write; it was the act itself: putting words on paper, putting words on paper every day. Long ago I committed myself to a way of life, not to a profession or a hobby or a self-display. As I grew up within the American educational system and experienced the (more or less) middle class social, political, and economic way of life, "The Arts" came to hold for me a significant, yet imprecise and inexplicable relationship to human life and human endeavor. The art and act of writing, plus the imparting of ideas and experience, shape human perception, attitude, and behavior in particular ways. It's never had to do with making a living or filling idle time or trying to entertain someone. I have written a lifetime because I was driven to pursue something else: a self-definition and existence through an indecipherable thing called "Art."
Of course, what works may come to be defined by (any segment of) humanity as "art," generally speaking, is not determined by the producing artist. Art takes decades and centuries to be appreciated for what it is, like history. An artist's worldly satisfaction and recompense often never materialize; neither does the art. Over five decades (and more) of a writing life, I've known many an aspiring artist to give it all up when they got hungry, when the world wouldn't praise their work, when the first kid came and the debt mounted and the spouse said, "Get real!" I've met many an aspiring (and publishing) writer, come later in life to the craft as a profession, who think they should publish everything they write now because technically they can, and they define what to me has been a way of life (a lifetime) as a strategy of technology, genre, marketing and sales.
I'm not saying those things aren't elements of a writer's life. I sought an audience early in life and published academically and small press-wise when publications were few and acceptance determined by a handful of editors and publishers and personal connections. I published in hardback in New York City to good reviews in the "right" industry magazines, and that might have gone on had I listened to others and produced what they wanted and expected. But I didn't. I wasn't an academic who wrote poetry (while running my own quarterly publication on English department funds); I wasn't a journalist who could produce an article for Woman's Day or National Geographic and make a living at it. I wasn't a mainstream novelist, producing formula to meet my editor's and fans' expectations. I may have liked to produce more often something common and comfortable enough to fit others' wishes and be professionally profitable; but I didn't. Is a writer's job to produce what's wanted, expected, comfortable? I've written more in the vein of the journals of Thoreau and Emerson, something that hasn't been interesting or profitable for almost two hundred years.
Early on, I made the decision that I wasn't a professional or a laborer who wrote. I was a writer who labored at other professions to be able to write as I wanted, what I wanted. For twenty years I was a writer who farmed. For another twenty I was a writer who drove trucks, led tours in Mexico, taught part-time, interpreted in the courts. For all those years and more, I was a writer who wrote. Every day.
Sometimes I've been conscious of audience other than self. Sometimes I've been conscious of form, of voice, of plot, of character, of tension, of dramatic pacing, of intent; in short, conscious of craft and professionalism. I have published in forms satisfactory to editors and readers, but none of that makes me a writer. Words on paper, day after day, make me a writer; their necessity like air, water, food, sleep.
(From the author of the "Something" series of mystery novels set in Mexico: Something In Vallarta, Something Like A Dream (OTP, 2014) and Something For Nothing (due out in Jan. 2015), and several other books of poetry, fiction, history, and biography.)