I knew that I was destined to be a writer since I was about seventeen or eighteen years old. The realization descended upon me with the force of revelation. It came about after a powerful short story in an anthology for one of my college classes hit me like a thunderbolt. That’s what I wanted to do. I was sure of it.
At first I didn’t know how to go about it. I attempted various short stories that didn’t really amount to anything. I struggled to come up with things to write about. In those days, I thought that writing came out of your head, out of ideas that you somehow came up with. And it does, sort of. However, the most powerful writing initiates from your heart and your guts. You dredge it up out of your experiences, your hopes, your dreams, your frustrations, your victories, your sins, your deep dark secrets that you don’t even tell those closest to you. I had plenty of all that. I just didn’t know how to access it. For me, it took getting out on the road and traveling halfway around the world before I managed to break through the ice or the rock crust or whatever metaphor you want to use into the pure gold beneath. That’s when I found my so-called voice.
Really, though, what is termed a writer’s voice is only the arrangement of whatever he or she chooses to put on the page. It’s not some sort of mysterious algorithm or code that you somehow crack and are thenceforth able to impart pearls of wisdom. It’s just you speaking. I had to figure that out the hard way, to compile the bumps and bruises of experience while all the time the simple reality of it was staring me in the face.
A writer writes. A writer is an artist who observes the world and reacts to it in words. It’s as easy and as difficult as that. Easy because all you have to do is look around you and then describe what you see. Difficult because the lens through which you see the world is often tarnished and muddied by falsehoods, inadequacies, insecurities, deceptions, and distractions put there by you or by others.
One of the most important pieces of advice I would give to someone who realizes they are a writer is to write. Write and don’t ever stop. No matter what life throws at you, find a way to write through it. As I look back on my life, one of my greatest regrets is that I stopped writing for about two decades in the middle of it. Oh, I have my excuses, and they are valid ones. I’m not going to bother delineating them here. However, those two decades are gone and I can never get them back. As I look back now from the perspective of old age and realize that I have limited time left on this Earth, I regret losing that time and those words. My current minimum daily word count of creative words, which I resolve to keep no matter what and manage to meet five or six days a week, is five hundred words. Usually I manage more; I would say my average is about seven hundred words. Let’s keep it at five hundred words, five days a week, for the purposes of this analysis. That’s two thousand five hundred words a week, ten thousand words a month, one hundred twenty thousand words a year, and two million four hundred thousand words in twenty years. That’s how many words I have lost by my midlife hiatus. I can never get that time or those words back. They are lost forever.
Not all of those aforementioned words, perhaps, would have been superb words or publishable words, but they would have been my words, and I might have used them in some way, if only as raw material for further projects. And that brings me to another important piece of advice: keep what you write. Don’t ever get rid of it – not even those old diaries or journals that cause you a twinge of embarrassment whenever you think about them. This prompts the memory of another profound regret in my own life. In an unwise, self-righteous, self-critical moment when I was overseas, I had a relative destroy the box full of manuscripts from my early writing years, thinking that they were inadequate and inferior compared to what I had begun to produce. Perhaps they were, but I have often longed to have them back so that I could go over them again. I might have been able to glean some insight into my thought processes back then, which in turn might have helped me with my current work.
So there you have it: for whatever they are worth, insights gleaned from the perspective of experience. Never stop writing, and keep what you write. I’m not talking about holding onto all those muddled first drafts; rather, retain a record of your past efforts in case for some reason in the future you want to refer to them.
Writers write. And future work is built upon present and past work. That’s the crux of it all.