Author See, Author Do

All my talk of writing a new play inspired this interesting e-mail from a friend of mine. This person has a novel in the works that I’ve been badgering her to finish for quite some time. After this, though, I may quit bugging her (but in a good way):

I long ago discovered that it’s VERY easy to get excited about and involved in certain types of writing (or any other) projects when those immediately around you are involved in that type of endeavor. When I was [involved with] confession stories I knew I could write them too – and did. When I was involved with [a community theater group], I knew I could write plays – and did. That led to ‘knowing’ I could write play reviews. And did. From there it was a short hop to feature interest articles about local activities.

I think this is why writers’ colonies are so attractive. Everyone around you is at least WANTS to write. And you think all the rest are writing. So you write. And then someone else ‘knows’ you are writing and they write. And you see THEM writing and you go at it harder. You know how when you look over a steepness (edge of building, bridge, etc) you get that ‘pulling in’ feeling? It’s the same with activity around you. You get caught in the ‘stream’ so to speak. (Probably the whole basis of mob reaction…you’re ‘hooked in’ and ‘pulled along’.)

I know that because when I’m NOT around any writing activity, I don’t seem very inclined to ENGAGE in that activity. I suspect that when I finally get around to having TIME to work on [my novel], even then I won’t have the INCLINATION. But put me in a room with other people writing and … I’ll get sucked in.

This brings up a couple of interesting points.

I’m going to agree with my friend’s assessment, but I want to divide the people who do this into two types.

First is the kind of person who simply can’t write unless they see how someone else does it – then they pick up and can do it… with mixed results at best.

I once worked for a person who told a colleague, “I know everything there is to know about writing.” Yet, he couldn’t seem to start anything. Here is how he worked: He would send down to our department and have us write whatever it was he wanted. Then he’d look at it, throw it out, and write his own piece. It was as if he couldn’t write unless he first saw how it was supposed to be done. There was nothing inside of him to make that initial leap. Was what he did better than what I did? Not necessarily. Of course, since he was boss, his stuff got used, and he soon developed the perception that I wasn’t writing anything at all.

(I am the same way with voice impressions – I can do a few, but only after I hear someone else do the imitation first. My ear isn’t trained to hear what mannerisms make a person’s voice distinctive. What I could pick up on was which characteristics were exaggerated by an impressionist. I can do Al Gore, for example, because one day my son pointed out that he sounded like Hank Hill on King of the Hill.)

Generally speaking, this kind of person will never produce anything original in their lifetime because of their utter dependence on other people to be original for them. Let me also draw a line here – there is a difference between this type of person (a creative vampire if you will, who relies on the talent of others to produce tangible results) and the kind of person who can look at a style, analyze it, and do something original with it.

To return to my impressionist analogy, I fall into this latter category. One of my gifts as a writer is that I can look at a style of writing and intuit what makes it work: e.g., in And/News I include the text of a Newsweek “story,” written in that magazine’s voice. I could do a pretty good Elmore Leonard or Neil Stephenson at the moment. In this respect, I could be a successful impressionist, because I can pick up the nuances of the writer’s voice. The only thing is – why bother? We already have a Leonard and a Stephenson, and I’d rather be the first Joe Clifford Faust.

The other type gets caught up in the moment, a form of emotional contagion. You begin to pick up on the excitement of the moment, even if it’s just a bunch of stuffy writer types sitting around reading drafts to one another. You sense that something special is going on, you see how the others are doing it, and by golly, you realize that you can do it, too. And since there’s a support system right there in front of you (and believe me, for some unknown reason, most writers love to encourage other people to try writing), it’s really easy to stick your toe in and suddenly realize you’re in it up to your neck. This type of writer can actually become a productive member of the community, and with success they might actually overcome their dependence on being around others in order to write.

Otherwise, what happens when the support group dissolves? You either walk away because you can quit anytime, or you keep going because writing is still inside you, growing and infecting your blood, a kind of creative heroin without which you can’t exist.

Maybe that’s what makes the difference – the discovery of how important a creative outlet is to you. Personally, I think it’s important to everyone. We are made in God’s image, and one of the things he gave to us was his urge to create.

However, outside of the creative arts, we who are so blessed don’t see how others express themselves – or we don’t see it as their form of creative expression. Do they sing in church? Create wonderful landscapes out of their yards? Are they the Mozart of rebuilding diesel motors, as one of my grandfathers was? My wife is a brilliant cook, and she often says that cooking is her performance art. Perhaps they just sit in a lawn chair and play guitar for an audience of chickens in their back yard.

This could lead to an entire analysis of the usefulness of a writer’s group. Good for nurturing a talent, bad if someone has the talent but decides the whole thing bores them. Great if there’s an overlapping of like-minded members, not so great if you’re a novelist stuck in a room full of broody poets. Me, I learned how to function without a writer’s group because in the small Wyoming town where I lived, the only other writers in the group I attended were women who wrote touching poems about mason jars that they sent to magazines paying in contributor’s copies.

So is it good or bad to be a writer via emotional contagion? That I can’t answer. It can be a great discovery and an incredible annoyance for those of us volunteering to go along for the ride. I can’t imagine how it all would look or feel to someone who simply got sucked into the situation. But to me, being able to walk away from all this without even a wistful glance backwards is even more unimaginable.

Yeah, I’m a junkie, all right.

NP – Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers

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