What’s a Writer, Anyway?


Day 3

It may sound egotistical, but I call myself a writer, and with some confidence.  Though I have to admit that I don’t like explaining that – at least not here in LA.  Here, when you say you’re a writer, people assume you work “in the industry,” or that you’re aspiring to, anyhow.  I’m not.  And it’s awkward to discuss.  I earn my living by writing curriculum, grant applications, accreditation reports, etc. etc. etc.  And, as I’m prone to say: I was a poet in another life.

What’s a writer, anyway? In the back of my head is Stephen King’s adage that anyone who is paid, ever, for writing, is a writer.  Deeper than that is a belief that writing is a gift, a talent, a storytelling magic that has compelled a certain portion of the human race to metaphor from time immemorial.  And finally, there is this idea that writing is a skill, a craft, something with history to be apprenticed and cultured.  And as for writers, the best of us, well, they’ve hit they holy trinity.

I have been writing since elementary school.  I remember keeping a diary that would move between stream of consciousness, daydream and language play.  I can’t recall exactly what I wrote, but I can tell you how it felt: it felt right.  Like running in a cool morning.  Like leaves greener for the rain.  Like driving the I-15 east through the Mojave in the middle of the night.  I got some praise from my family, and so I kept writing.  I wrote well in school.  My peers noticed, my teachers too.  I got a reputation.  I transitioned from essay to poetry.  Really, really, really bad poetry.   I did that for a while.  It helped me process my emotions.

In my early twenties I got involved in the spoken word and open mic scene in the community where I was living.  This was my first taste of being around other writers.  It gave me something to cut my teeth against.  I met a some of folks who were better than me.  I heard a couple of real poets read.  I saw direction.  I went to grad school.  I read a lot of poetry.  I studied with skilled writers.  I learned to workshop and to take feedback and rejection.  I kept writing.  I pushed up against genre, played a bit in postmodern fiction.  Won a couple of small press prizes.  I got a lot more practice writing practical workplace prose.  And I kept writing poetry.  Somewhere along the way, I learned to separate the triggering experience from the art.  That, I think, was a huge turning point from me.  I began to understand that truth is not just a chronological, factual re-telling of a specific event in lovely words; that sometimes, a deeper truth is found when we blur events together, when we extrapolate them into possibility, when we hope and tremble with them.