What I Have To Do

Below are the remarks I made yesterday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro‘s Sunday service, which was a panel on creativity and the creative process. With me on the panel were a painter, an actor/playwright, a musician/painter, a dancer, and a stained class artist. It was interesting to hear the similarities among such different artists, and the program was well-received.

This may not be exactly what you were looking for in a five-minute speech, but you’ll understand at the end, this was the only way it could go.

It was my ninth grade English teacher who told me I was a writer—she caught me writing Star Trek™ and Man from U.N.C.L.E.™ stories in her class and confiscated my notebook. The next day, she gave it back to me and told me to never stop writing, just not in her class. That was when I realized I was a writer, even though I’d been writing stories since third grade. When I’d get my list of spelling words for the week, everyone else just wrote each in a sentence and used them correctly. I wrote a story—usually about horses.

I think instinctively I knew as an avid reader that I wanted to do what the people who wrote the books I read did—write. And I ended up doing just that first for an aviation insurance consortium and then for Uncle Sam, as well as for myself.

At a writer’s workshop I recently attended, a fellow writer said, “I write because it’s what I have to do.” I agree. It’s not a hobby or an avocation or even a vocation; it’s who I am; it defines me. It helps me cope. I’ve written about my mother’s alcoholism and my father’s suicide because writing lets me detach and look at those events objectively, and in that way I can move on from them. I’ve dealt with my brother’s untimely death in a recently published story called “Trophies,” and that story showed me the only way I’ve handled what life has dealt me is to write about it. Some of that writing won’t ever see the light of day because it’s too personal, but that doesn’t lessen the healing effect of “getting it all down on paper.”

And here’s the coolest thing about writing fiction: when someone pisses you off, you can write them into a story then kill them, and the grotesqueness of the death is in proportion to your level of anger. Then, you can laugh about what made you angry in the first place because, after all, it’s fiction.

Writing makes me richer spiritually and mentally—it’s certainly not something that’s made me richer fiscally—because there’s nothing like the feeling of creating a story that comes from your imagination then having people tell you how meaningful it was to them. That’s my payday.

To be a writer, you have to write, every day, and you have to read just as much. Writing is like any other art. You have to practice, practice, practice. And it comes upon you anywhere—at your day job, in the middle of a date, in the middle of the night, at any inopportune time you can imagine. The story tells you when it needs to be written, and you must drop whatever you’re doing and tell it.

You create worlds as a writer. Sometimes they’re completely recognizable and commonplace, and sometimes the muse takes you places you never thought you’d walk. I thought I was going to write cute little, Miss Marple-type mysteries, but these two shadowy characters who are spies sprang into my head then tapped me on the shoulder and told me, “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to look at current events from a different point of view, and you’re going provide people information they think they really didn’t want to know, but it’s what you have to do.”

So, it was my characters who told me as a writer you sometimes speak for those who can’t. Sometimes, most times, the story isn’t your story. It’s someone else’s, and he or she has appointed you to write it. That’s a heavy burden, but you write on because there are just things the world needs to know. Who better to tell them than a scribe, once a Pharaoh’s most important courtier, the person who put down history and thereby told a tale?

The first writers told their stories in pictures inscribed in their blood or other organic paints on the walls of caves. In some ways, it’s no different today. Each day I go into my writer’s cave, and my tools lay before me. I pick them up, and my mind opens, and the words come, and the story’s told.

I know, however, tomorrow, and all the tomorrows, there will be another story and another and another. There has to be. It’s what I have to do.

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