Somebody asked me: how do I become a writer? That’s a question that is always looming somewhere in the shadow, isn’t it? Always waiting for us around the corner, as if there was a single answer. There is no ‘one’ answer to that question, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to say on the matter. First of all, let me speak once more about something that is commonly said: a writer is someone who writes. That is true. But not everyone who writes is a writer. For years I would tell everybody I ‘wrote stuff’ and I looked incredulous at people who would write a poem or an essay and figured they were writers already. I really thought that was completely disrespectful to the ones that are dedicated to the Craft.
It took me a long time to consider myself a writer. Some time ago, someone got me to believe that a ‘writer’ is someone who writes, but an ‘author’ is a more serious maybe published writer. That’s all rubbish in my view. This is what I think: a writer is someone for whom writing is at the center of his/her life. It’s someone who writes for a living. Not in the sense that he/she gets paid and survives off the writing, but in the sense that his/her life is about writing. A writer writes and is read. Maybe by a few people, maybe by a hundred, maybe by a million. But a writer writes and a writer is read all… the… time. That is his/her commitment. To a craft. To a way of life. That’s what makes a writer.
A writer is committed. Think of a writer as a knight looking for the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail is probably a bestseller. A bestseller that would provide fame and fortune. Or the Nobel Prize. Or the Pulitzer. This commitment to find the Grail is what I call: The Path of the Writer. Very few writers will ever actually find the Holy Grail. And of these even fewer will be able to find it with their first book. Finding the Grail usually demands endless search for years, a lot of suffering and learning, a lot of talent and skill, and a lot of luck. Most writers will never find the Grail, but those who do must commit themselves to the search completely. The odds are against them, but they accept those odds. Because that’s the way of the writer. It’s not about the finding, it’s about the searching. A writer is not successful only if he/she writes and publishes a bestseller or wins the Nobel Prize. A writer is successful when he/she accepts the odds and seriously takes on the mission of searching.
Sometimes I lack the grace to suffer with gentleness some kinds of questions from would-be writers. How should my character be? How should I write the first sentence? What story should I write? Should I have many characters or few characters? Can I have more than a protagonist? How many chapters should I have? How many pages should I have in a chapter? All these questions denounce a writer who is not serious, who is not seriously contemplating The Path of the Writer. Before I became a writer I read many books with many different characters; many different kinds of first sentences; many different kinds of stories; with many characters or a few characters; with several protagonists; with all kinds of formatting for their chapters. Can there be any notion in the mind of someone who is seriously considering The Path that there are these rules you ABSOLUTELY must follow? Read Faulkner, for Christ’s sake! Read Duras! Read George R.R. Martin! Read Melville! Read Hemingway! Read Shakespeare! Read Woolf! Read, and tell me what part of ‘No Rules’ don’t you understand!
I recently gained a habit: when someone asks me one of these questions like ‘Should I have more than one POV in a chapter?’ I usually reply this way: ‘Yes, it’s in the Manual’ and I add something like: ‘Page 96. If you don’t know it, you’ll get in trouble!’ To my complete surprise, it’s not uncommon to have to explain a bit further something that should be obvious: THERE IS NO MANUAL!!
In Edward Zwick’s movie THE LAST SAMURAI there is a scene when Tom Cruise’s Westerner character is learning combat skills from samurai. He is practicing and always gets bested by his opponent. Then one friend in the audience comes to him and says the following: ‘Too many mind. Mind the sword, mind the people watching, mind the enemy. Too many mind. No mind.’ Let me say to you, fellow warriors, who walk the Path of the Writer, the following: ‘Too many should. Should do this. Should do that. Should listen to publishers. Should listen to teachers. Should listen to family. Should do what books say. Too many should. No should.’ The whole world is before you… ‘The world is before you, and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.’ So said James Baldwin.
Of course, a knight has tools. Has a horse. Has a sword. Has a shield. Has an armor. And a writer has tools. Tools of structure, of character development, of outlining, of style, of grammar, etc. But the tools are not rules. That actually sounds good. I’ll print it on a t-shirt: Tools are not Rules. They do not tell you how to write: they help you write better. They help you solve problems you will encounter in your quest. But it’s you who will have to create new solutions and new ideas and new approaches to the challenges you face.
A writer, as a knight, also needs a strategy and a plan for the search. You must understand the difficulty of the quest and be ready for it, planning long-term what you have to do. If you believe you need to write in English to approach the global market and you do not know English: go learn English. If you believe the Chinese market is the future: go learn Mandarin. It will take years? It will be difficult? Yes: but if that’s your plan commit to it. If you think you need to travel: find a way to travel. If you think you need money: earn some money or find patronage. But have a plan and be persistent. The Path is all about persistence, sacrifice, resilience and determination.
I want to tell you more about The Path of the Writer. For now I will write two more posts on it. I will speak of the two different Tracks one must follow on the Path. They are connected but they seldom cross. They are like the tracks on a railway, side by side, not really touching each other, but leading to the same destination and dependent on one another. Track A is Writing. When walking The Path you need to write. Always write. Never give up. Face the blocks, and the doubts, and the deadlines, and the lack of time, and the distractions, and write. Track B is Publishing. And for that you need courage, and persistence, and resilience. I will write one post on Track A and another on Track B. They will be following over the next few days.
Maybe right now you are already negotiating in your head: ‘But I have a job, and I have children, and I have a family, and I have friends, I have to go to the gym, and rest, and go buy groceries, and pay my taxes and sleep. How can I reconcile all that with writing, with walking The Path?’
Let me tell you a lesson in Time Management someone once taught me and which never escaped me. Time cannot be managed. You cannot add hours to your day nor move them around. 3 a.m. will always be 3 a.m. The same 24 hours exist in each day. The same number of days exists in each year. And you cannot really control the given years you have in your life. All you can do is decide what to do with your time. Time Management is all about one thing: deciding what’s important. Deciding what takes precedent. If you are committed to writing, you’ll write. And that’s all there is to it.