By Karen E. Bender
November 8, 2018
I asked the question. Most writers, at some point, ask the question. I marched toward the office of poet Thom Gunn, who taught the poetry workshop I took as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. I had submitted some poems for acceptance into his workshop, and I wanted to see if I was admitted into his class. I walked through the warm, starry air of Wheeler Hall to his office, where I stood, trembling, before a piece of paper taped to the door and saw my name on the list on the office door.
I had been rescued.
This relief was immediately accompanied by a constant and simmering sense of fear.
I went to class. I wanted to learn how to write poetry. I wanted to become a writer. I sat, silent, among the other students, listening, and pretended that I understood what was going on. A thoughtful nod was part of this charade, and occasionally murmuring a carefully modulated, Mm-hmm. While I tried to decode everything the other students were saying, I was really lost in these facts: the way the young woman with the spiked haircut left the room, her long black coat floating behind her in an action so glamorous and slow it existed in another physical dimension, the punch-bright red sneakers of one of the guys in the class. I was aware of the chalkboard and the pale light coming through the blinds, of which guys in the class I wanted to date. The mere experience of being in that classroom, the fact of my presence there, made my mind shriek silently with joy.
One day, I went to Professor Gunn’s office hours for a student conference, and asked him what he thought about my poems. “They are funny,” he said, “But there’s not a shred of feeling in them.”
Oh, I said, deflated. But how strange, because I knew I had feelings. Where were they? What mysterious act of physics moved my feelings from my head, my heart, and then onto the page?
Then I had to ask the question.
Did I have it in me to become a writer? Did I possess that ineffable, mysterious force? Could he, a famous writer, tell me yes or no?
I sat up, looking at him with perhaps a daunting, determined expression. I wanted a clear answer. Now.
He seemed both weary and bemused, as though a student came up to him frequently with this question. I felt as though I was asking him if I was going to live. He said, “You have plenty of talent, but you just have to do a lot of work.”
Did I have it in me to become a writer? Did I possess that ineffable, mysterious force? Could he, a famous writer, tell me yes or no?
It was a decent answer, and considering the quality of these poems, a generous one. His eyes glazed over, as a measure of self-defense against any further inquisitions into this topic, and I said thank you and headed down the hall, to my life.
Now I sit in my office and every year, a student, will come to me and ask: Do I have it? Do I have it in myself to become a writer? I always feel a bucket of sorrow pour out of me when I hear this. For I understand the students are, in fact, asking: should I be spending years of my life doing this? Or something else?
The answer to this question is that you should write because you want to write, which is the answer no one wants to hear.
But, they press, do I have it in me to be good?
Of course, no one can answer that, because no one can answer what a writer will find in themselves, what work the writer will complete, and also how the world will respond to it. But I want to share something that I have thought about. How does a writer’s mind work? What traits are important to becoming a writer?
After a few decades wrestling words onto the page and helping students in this process, I have a few thoughts on what you need in yourself to become a writer. This is supported by no science, no statistics, nothing.
But these traits are ones I believe you need as a writer, and I want to share them with you.
So first: there is the love of language. You are, after all, working with words. For writers, there is the sense that you don’t want to read a sentence or a description or a story—you want to eat it. You want to make love to it. You want to, above all, give birth to it—which is what each work is in response to another—a birth. You are affected deeply, in a physical way, when you read a sentence, a character, a story of a writer who you admire. You are obsessed with how.
This is why you choose this form of expression, as opposed to painting or sculpture or dance or music. You love these items, words, and you want to spend time arranging them.
This sensitivity toward language is what people refer to as “talent.” It is described in a sort of appropriating way: “She has talent.” I have always been suspicious of the word “talent” in writing. Yes, there must be sensitivity to language and an interest in words and image and story. Virginia Woolf, describing Shakespeare, says in her essay, “The Common Reader”: “(Shakespeare), the word-coining genius, as if thought plunged into a sea of words and came up dripping.”
So there it is. We all should be plunging into that sea of words. That is true.
But “talent” is, I feel, a reductive word, and in some ways a destructive one. Do I have talent? students ask. They are asking: Do I have some wonderful, sparkling thing inside me, valuable despite everything, something precious that I can trust?
First, yes, you need sensitivity to language. And then the psychological traits that I believe are necessary to becoming a writer are: a tendency toward extreme sensitivity, openness to the imagination, a particular stubbornness, and a precise form of delusion.
The first trait I’ve been thinking about is a tendency toward extreme sensitivity, which I’ve been reading about recently. A new definition: Highly Sensitive People. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, a psychologist who has studied HSP and written several books about it, about 15-20 percent of the population falls into this category. Dr. Aron claims that one can be defined as a “Highly Sensitive Person” by answering her quiz. I tried her self-quiz, in her site hsperson.com. Here are some questions: I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment, Other people’s moods affect me, I have a rich and complex inner life, I am made uncomfortable by loud noises, I get rattled when I have to lot to do in a short amount of time, I am deeply moved by the arts and music, I make it a point to avoid violent TV shows and movies and When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment, I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating).
I have always been suspicious of the word “talent” in writing.
The Highly Sensitive Person quiz was, to be honest, one of the most obvious quizzes ever. I cannot vouch for the validity of this quiz, but I can see how my own experience in the world is definitely informed by this. I cry at car commercials. I cry when others are crying. At every movie we go to, I am tenderly dabbing my eyes at whatever sentimental sap in on the screen. My feelings, over anything, can sometimes feel overwhelming. I can become lost in daydreams, which feel extremely convincing and real. I can be sensitive to sounds.
I listen to my writing students, and some traits that come through quite consistently (and others that fall within the HSP category as well) is that they definitely have rich inner lives, they are very sensitive to the world around them.
In his classic essay, “The Crack Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrestles with ways to find mental space for himself as a writer and says, after himself experiencing a breakdown of some sort, or a “crack up”:
One harassed and despairing night I packed a briefcase and went off a thousand miles to think it over. I took a dollar room in a drab little town where I knew no one and sunk all the money I had with me in a stock of potted meat, crackers, and apples. But don’t let me suggest that the change from a rather overstuffed world to a comparative asceticism was any Research Magnificent—I only wanted absolute quiet to think out why I had developed a sad attitude toward sadness, a melancholy attitude toward melancholy, a tragic attitude toward tragedy—why I had become identified with the objects of my horror and compassion.
Reading this, I wonder if it is an expression of Fitzgerald’s feeling of being overwhelmed, of that need to separate from the world briefly, to feel the fullness of an empty room with a typewriter.
But for writing—this sort of heightened emotional and sensory sensitivity is important. It’s what attunes writers to the quality of sunlight at noon versus dusk, or the sound of honking cars in the rain or the feeling of a particular sadness. The feeling of being highly aware of the gorgeous stickiness of the world, and of the wildness within yourself, means writers are porous—to experience, to elements, to feeling. It’s what makes a writer want to grab the world and wrestle it onto the page.
The next important trait for a writer is the openness to the imagination. This could apply to memoir writers as well as fiction writers or poets, as the act of arranging real life on the page is also an act of imagination, of transformation. For fiction writers, there has to be trust in the importance of imagining—or faith in the lie. Imagination is about a connection to yourself as a child before you are indoctrinated into logic. For in creating a story, you create something equally alive.
Sometimes beginning writers will laugh when I tell them to lie. Is part of this the fear of not being believed? To write fiction, to believe in the lie on the page, means that you also want your lie to be taken seriously. As a fiction writer, you live in parallel lives—the life of truth, in our regular, awake world, in which we try to be honest and truthful as part of a pact with other people.
But, on the page, imagining (and lying) is so much fun. It’s a way to act out in your mind, to try to understand people who are not you, to step out from the strange package that is yourself. Milan Kundera says, “The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.”
The next important trait for a writer is a particular and relentless stubbornness. I hear it in the voices of students who say, with a kind of exasperation, “I have to become a writer! I just will!” It may sound a little dramatic, but it’s important. There’s something in the somewhat tantrum-like defensiveness in their voices that makes me think—yes. You will. It’s a desperate cry against anyone who is telling them they have to follow another path. The stubbornness of a writer leads the writer to the page in the early morning, at lulls at work, late at night, when others are going to dinner, watching TV, stubbornness brings you to this task, even when it’s hard, even when you stare at the page and nothing comes to you. The stubbornness of doing. Orhan Panuk said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel prize: “The writer’s secret is not inspiration—for it is never clear where it comes from—it is his stubbornness, his patience. That lovely Turkish saying—to dig the well with a needle—seems to me to have been said with writers in mind.”
One psychological burden for a writer is dealing with the question—how do I know I exist? How do I know that I will finish anything and then if it will find a place in the world?
But a writer requires a particular type of stubbornness, for it is one that also allows for listening. When a writer shows work in progress to reader—a class, or a friend, or an agent or editor—the writer will receive feedback. A reader may admire one section of a story and hate another, or think the writing is excellent or problematic. Here, a writer needs to be open (and stubborn) in a selective way.
What feedback feels right to you, in your gut? What confirms your suspicion about a piece? All responses to creative work come from a person, with specific and precise tastes and sometimes agendas. Sometimes readers completely misunderstand a piece, in which case stubbornness (“This isn’t what I intended!”) is useful. But other times, a reader can help you see a piece in a new way. This is when stubbornness becomes defensiveness, and is no good.
So: stubborn in doing the work, selectively stubborn in listening to and accepting criticism. This careful listening is key—absorbing, rethinking.
Another important trait for a writer is the ability to delude oneself.
I recently told my writing students that they should learn how to delude themselves. My students looked at me, understandably concerned.
To write, I recommend a very particular type of delusion. A delusion is problematic if you’re, say, refusing to acknowledge that a certain person actually does not like you, or if you’re sinking into debt, or if you’re hearing voices. But in creating art, in sitting down in front of a blank page and saying, “I am going to write a novel,” or a story, or anything that does not have a clear outcome or map, delusion (or, perhaps deep suppression of the incredible difficulty of this undertaking) can have a use.
Delusion can be, frankly, practical. When I left graduate school, people would ask me, “What are your plans?” and I would tell them, “I’m writing a novel.” I had vague plans for making money—part-time work, adjunct teaching, and the like—but what I was really doing, I told myself, was writing a novel. This was, in fact, true—I was spending a number of hours each day typing out words. But would it, in fact, become a novel? This was where my delusion came in.
Writing a novel is one of the most difficult psychological undertakings or tasks. Ever. You begin from nothing. From this nothing you create a mess, if you keep going, and then you revise the mess, and organize it, and then throw out, and revise it, then there is, maybe, one day, a book. You cannot underestimate the daily terror of that nothing, and the quiet energy it takes to create something out of nothing. You have no one to give you a roadmap but yourself. Just you.
So how does a writer live within this uncertainty? The key here is: delusion plus diligent work. A delusion plus nothing is just a delusion. But sitting down and working as often as you can, actually trying on some sort of regular basis—then you are a writer.
Why are we so worried about wasting time? This is partly because our culture is terrified at the idea of waste. The terrifying part is that nothing is certain, you may finish your novel or not, someone may publish your book or no one will, readers may like your book or hate it, or worse, ignore it.
One psychological burden for a writer is dealing with the question—how do I know I exist? How do I know that I will finish anything and then if it will find a place in the world? When I was writing in college, when I tried to take myself seriously, I felt this every day, every sentence. Every time I sat down, it felt like I was fighting for my life as a writer.
What was a better strategy for sitting in front of the page?
I am a writer, I told myself one day. Surprisingly, no one contradicted me. It was a shift from Why am I trying to do this? Or This is unreadable crap. Maybe, I thought, I could really imagine anything in relation to this endeavor. This actually me feel a little better. I would be a writer and write a novel. I would write a good one.
I then went about my regular business, writing sentences, cutting them, rewriting them. Somehow, my delusion that I could, in some way, become a writer, one who had something to say to the world, made it a bit easier to do the work. And this is the key to the successful delusion—it is only useful if it helps you do the work.
So these are some traits that, I feel, you need to become a writer. Yes, the love and sensitivity to language, the desire and ability to work with story and sentences and words. A type of hyper-sensitivity to experience, to feelings. An openness to seeing and inventing the world. A relentless stubbornness that keeps you marching. And the capacity for a particular and diligent delusion, bound, inextricably, with work.
Together, all these traits offer a writer the most precious thing—a chance. Each time you sit down to work is another chance to do it right, to find some new beauty you didn’t know existed, to excavate some truth you didn’t know was true. To be a writer is to find the locus of control within yourself. What matters is the experience between you, the writer, the thoughts that live inside you, and the words, set down, day after day, on the page.
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