A Writer Does What?

onceuponatimeListening to a talk by the director of the Iowa Young Writer’s Studio, and author of Irreplaceable, Steven Lovely, entitiled “Marathon Training for the Fiction Writer: Conditioning Your Body and Mind to Go the Distance,” I was struck by his definition of a writer:

You are a writer if you write with seriousness and intention.

This is the essence I think. Being a writer has nothing to do with whether you’re published or only accumulating a pile of manuscripts to gather dust on the coffee table, next to an equally tall pile of rejection letters.

Writing is about the need to communicate the stuff bouncing around in your skull to another human being, even if the other human is just you.

According to Lovely, when writers write they:

…are carefully, meticulously constructing a communication, an experience in language with which a reader will engage, alone, singly, privately.

This communication, this constructed experience, if it’s worth anything, will convey your impression of the world, incarnate in small slice of it, and your understanding of the people and forces at work there.

It will explore, and reveal, and illuminate. It will organize and synthesize. It will require that your reader devote a portion of their busy, finite life to processing it.

When writing a fiction, you’re writing a piece of software, a program, and asking someone else to install it in their head; to run it in their mind. You’re asking to take control of their perceptual processes. This seems to me a bold and audacious request.

So why should anyone should honor this request? The question strikes at the heart of the great insecurity lurking in the soul of every writer.

Yes, I just spent two years, ten years, most of my life, thinking and scribbling, to churn out what I think is important and worthwhile. It is so, because what I have really done, is carve off a piece of myself for you to chew on. I consider it worthy of your overstressed and limited attention.

But will you now reject my work—and me—as underdone and flavorless?

I may aspire to be another Faulkner, Solzhenitsyn, or Bronte, but very few writers ever reach those lofty heights. Will my potential readers turn away because I am not Jonathan Franzen?

If so, why continue if I can’t scale those heights myself? Why put myself out there to be disregarded as plodding, trite, unoriginal? Or worse, totally ignored.

Lovely to the rescue:

What pleasure is there, what opportunity for personal and artistic achievement is there, in aiming low? The pleasure of writing, one of the few pleasures of writing, is to strain against the limits of one’s potential and occasionally break through.

And herein lies the secret to all of life, no? Whatever we do, be it writing, our profession, relationships, spiritual progress, it’s pushing against those boundaries that keep us from becoming more than we were yesterday, that makes life worth living.

This is an end in itself, worthy of pursuit, regardless of how often we succeed or fail.

A writer, indeed any developing human being, is one who lives seriously and intentionally.