I have written a lot of terrible fiction. Things I would not stand behind today. Things to which I would not sign my name. A lot of bad fiction; the characters crawling, deformed, from the pages.
It took me a long time to call myself a writer. Others did, faintly. I shook the remarks like bad karma. “I want to be a writer…” one day, I’d say in that callow, when-I-grow-up sort of way.
But, of course, I am a writer. Since I was six, held up in a tent I made from a sheet suspended between two sticky dining room chairs. I wanted to read this story that had never been written. It is the story I will write all my life.
“If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison
It took me most of my years to respect my writing, and the writing process. I took a creative writing class my second year of college. I didn’t read the books; barely wrote a word I cared about. I got a C.
One such book, From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler, has become scripture to me, once I came around to reading it. It has brought meaning, purpose, to my fingers. It has taught the unteachable. Has made me understand what I was doing wrong, precisely. I have been able to clarify my process.
Robert Olen Butler has been published too many times to count; has won the Pulitzer. Intimidated, I thought I could learn nothing from this accomplished writer. Before the cover, I was purely amateur.
The book contains too much to discuss in just one post, so I will stick to Chapter One, appropriately titled, “Boot Camp.”
Great Expectations of Self
It was not a long journey through paper before I came to the reassuring verse:
“You must, [to be in this class], have the highest aspirations for yourselves as writers – the desire to create works of fiction that will endure, that reflect and articulate the deepest truth about the human condition.”
Though strongly worded, the highest ambition a writer could fathom, it seemed…achievable. I felt this sage author was speaking directly to me. Saying firmly: You have to want it; you have to want it all.
The Artist’s Trembling Eyes
The second wonderful thing R.O.B. bestowed upon me was treating me like an artist… and informing me of the responsibility embedded within that calling.
“To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.” – Akira Kurosawa
The white-hot center, he calls it. The place from which you create. Your dreams. It is everything; bound to be are the things you don’t want to see. Don’t want to remember. The things you wish you could remove from yourself. You’re going to want to look away.
“You’re going to be, and probably always have been, led to avert your eyes. But turning from that path is what it means to be an artist. You need courage, and that’s something I can’t teach you. I can each you that you’ve got to have it.”
So it is courage, and a zenith to aspire to, that will be with you through every word. Not to guide you – there is no map. It is to lie in your skin, only to emerge in the most desperate moment. In times you want more than anything to quit. To be anything but what you are. From that chaos in your head and heart will come meaning.
Who you are, why you have been through what you have, why you write.
Part Two will be along shortly. For the next few days, the novel will be my only focus.