A lot of people talk about writing but very few actually do it. Platitudes abound regarding the idea that everyone has a novel in them, the idea that writing is like talking, that it’s a hobby one can pursue after retirement or “when I have time.” This is absurd. Not everyone has a novel in them because the purpose or goal not just of novels—and I’m sorry to disillusion you—but any kind of creative writing in general, especially fiction, isn’t about sharing ones story because it’s just so interesting or it will be so cathartic. As with everything else in life, no one cares about the struggles any of us have faced unless we’re already famous or already have a connection to that person for some reason. A good story doesn’t have to even have a particularly memorable plot, really. The Great Gatsby is about some guy’s neighbor who throws parties all the time and is hung up on an old girlfriend. Most, if not all, of Raymond Carver’s stories are about . . . very damned little, really. And yet many of these are profoundly accomplished works. Why? It’s the way they’re put together that matters. The structure, character development, pacing, etc. all come together to achieve an emotional resonance that isn’t too intrusive or obvious but is seriously affecting. And a hobbyist simply isn’t going to have the skill to accomplish a well-constructed novel or probably even a decent short story.
To say that writing is as easy as talking is like saying that running a marathon is as easy as walking. But it’s a marathon in which the route hasn’t been laid out in any meaningful way (maybe there’s an “outline” of a path, but it shifts constantly). The runner has to skip ahead and backtrack, somehow, while, also, sustaining this marathon act over the course of weeks. Months. Years, sometimes. Also, talking makes for bad writing. Let’s consider dialogue. One of the tricks I was taught for writing dialogue is to go sit in a mall food court or some similarly busy place and eavesdrop and even record strangers’ dialogue. This is a great exercise (or you can simply pay attention to those around you, which you really should be doing anyway if you want to be a writer and a decent person) but one of the first things one notices is how awkward and boring our speech patterns tend to be. We start and stop, pause and leave thoughts unfinished or simply gesture towards the completion of our ideas. We use filler words and filler clichés frequently. When talking with friends, we allude to things only they would understand, and similarly, we use idioms a general audience might not understand. We also change the way we speak according to audience. All of these are real issues for a reader. The trick, of course, is to emulate realistic dialogue without actually being too realistic. Again, this takes a great deal of practice and skill, which a hobbyist simply won’t have. An example that is seared into my memory is from a playwriting workshop I took as an undergraduate. A retiree (though age has nothing to do with it) who audited the course turned in a monologue he’d written from the POV of a schizophrenic stutterer. Imagine this for a moment. It was two pages, thankfully, but two dense pages of incomplete utterances that looped back on themselves. The teacher forced him to read it aloud to us, which took several minutes. He undertook it enthusiastically, and by the time he was finished, every one of us knew there was no hope for this piece beyond it being an exercise. He admitted that he’d transcribed a recording of a conversation with a patient (he worked at a hospital, not as a doctor, but in another capacity I’ve forgotten). Here we have all the hallmarks of a hobbyist who doesn’t understand what writing truly is. This character is pitiable; he can barely communicate, and what he does communicate is difficult to understand because of the nature of his psychosis. The construction of the dialogue was, I’m sure, pitch-perfect and quite accurate. And yet when the piece had been read, no one cared about this character or found him to have been particularly well-invoked. If anything, we were annoyed at him because he was so difficult to understand. And any empathy or interest we might’ve found in a meta-sense (if we’d believed this was all done purposefully) dissipated probably five minutes into the reading when we realized we were still on the first page.
I’m not saying this couldn’t have been an interesting exercise; it could’ve been if handled well, and that takes precision and skill, which a hobbyist simply won’t have. The idea that in retirement a person can suddenly adopt this skill is based on a kind of laziness, in addition to the ignorance I’ve already explained. Sure, a person could absolutely begin to work on ones writing ability at any point in life. Absolutely. But one really needs a framework of skill and ability to do so. And this idea of writing “when I have time” is just pitiful. I, personally, am writing this essay while my wife has run to a local bakery to grab breakfast with our daughter. In fifteen minutes, I have to run to work. I’m skipping breakfast because I had an idea for something to write, so I wrote it. And I’ll go back later and steal some more time to edit it. That’s why I’m a writer. That’s why I have X number of books or pieces published; not just because I made the time to write this, but because this may never even be published. And that’s fine because I’ve experimented with a particular form, here, to see if it would work, and I think it has. It’s no different from practicing an instrument by playing scales, but the scales can be beautiful. If you know what you’re doing.
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at www.righthandpointing.com/bledsoe. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available at here. His story, “Leaving the Garden,” was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for story South‘s Million Writer’s Award. His story “The Scream” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings. Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.