You Should Be Writing

photo by Luca Bravo

No, I’m not telling you what to do. When I say you should be writing, I’m talking to myself. Am I some preachy, best selling author looking down his nose at dilettante writers who can’t eke out a few hundred words a day? Far from it. I need to whip myself back into writing shape, which is why I’m putting these words down. What’s your story?

You know who you are. Sometimes you feel the burning urge to write your heart out, to pen the great American novel, screenplay or short story. Other times, writing is the last thing in the world you feel like doing. I’ve lived there too.

Maybe you’ve heard this one

Like many of you, I’ve been writing since I was a child. It’s a familiar tale — the pre-teen scribbler who hunted and pecked out plays and stories on his dad’s manual typewriter while the other kids were outside playing and riding bikes. The college nerd who chronicled his entire 4 year stint in higher education instead of getting drunk and chasing girls. Yes, I was on track to becoming a writer. Then something happened, as it does to many wordsmiths. I stopped writing every day.

The writing came in drips and drabs. I’d taken a Creative Writing class in college and experienced a roomful of aspiring writers laughing at the situations in my short stories. I’d received praise from continuing education instructors who were working writers. But the cracks began to show. It took me months to write a short story unless I was doing it for a class. I was cursed with a perfectionist attitude towards my writing. Self-inflicted of course, but not an easy thing to get rid of. I’m still working on it.

Years ago I had lunch at a quaint diner not far from the office I worked at in Santa Monica. I was having a stressful day and got away to eat alone. While I sat at the counter reading Walking on Alligators: A Book of Meditations for Writers, an older woman sidled up to the stool next to mine. I guessed she was in her seventies, but she had a youthful glow to her.

“What are you reading son?” she asked. I put my book down, feeling guilty. “It’s a book about writing,” I said. “I’m trying to be a writer.” Her eyes had a sparkle to them as she smiled at me. “If you’re trying to be a writer, then you are a writer,” she said, turning to eat the grilled cheese sandwich just placed in front of her.

I still think of her as I struggle to carve out the words and the paragraphs and the stories. Don’t feel like a writer? Fight your inner critic and take the title. The fact that you’re putting sentences together makes it so. Call yourself a writer, even if no one else does at the moment.

The pen and the double edged sword

Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” I fully understand Mrs. Parker’s words. Every once in a while, it’s different. My fingers dance on the keyboard and there is life in them. The words flow and I’m anxious to see what they’ve typed at the end of a sentence or paragraph. Those are the times every writer strives for. It’s what keeps us coming back.

Want another reason to write? To give form to your thoughts. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Committed to paper through words, ideas show promise, they are made real. They exist. Sentences are born. You owe that to your words — bring them into the world. They may not all be shining examples of language, but they deserve a chance. They need not be perfect. They can be shaped and formed into more precise feelings. Writing is rewriting.

You might be that person who says, “I could never write, I’m not good at telling stories.” Everyone can write. Everyone has a story to tell. Some tell them better than others because they’ve had more practice. Like a muscle that’s weak from disuse, your writing can be frail and weak. The very act of writing is like doing reps at the gym. Each time you do it, your words get stronger. Exercise the writing muscle and it will get better.

In Zen and the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury talks about the Zen mindset as it applies to fiction: “Write with no attachment to outcome.” This thought was always hard for me to take to heart, as I thought you wrote to be read. But that’s not always the case. Not everyone wants to be a published writer, and that’s okay. Don’t think about any outcome from your writing until you’ve finished it. Only then can you determine whether your story goes into a desk drawer or out into the world. It’s your choice.

Kick it out and figure it out

Another reason to write? You have a fire in you and need to get it out. Bradbury also wrote about how anger is one of the best catalysts to creativity. It means you have something to say. Passion has borne many works of art. Will your writing be art? Maybe not, but it could be enough to persuade and win the hearts of others, if that’s what you’re after. You’ll never know unless you try.

When we write, we learn new things about ourselves and others. I believe the second you stop learning is the moment you stop living. They say write what you know. Others have said, “Write what you don’t know.” Which is it? I like to do both, depends on what I want to do. We writers are a curious lot.

Say you want to write a story about a zookeeper. Unless you are a zookeeper, you won’t know much about their day to day life or how they got there. Research comes into play here. For me, it’s always fun to read about different things and discover new worlds I didn’t know about before. These can often be the spark to a new story, or help flesh out a piece you’re already working on.

The empty page awaits

These are just a few reasons for putting words together. I could go on with countless others, but the world has enough listicles in it. Besides, you and I need to sit our butts in our chairs and get to the matter at hand. We should be writing.

What are you waiting for?

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