Free Gifts of the Writing Life
By Collin Suttle, Student Contributor
“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things,…” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard authors talk about how hard writing is. I’ve heard them talk about the satisfaction of progress made, or the reward of writing a story well: you put in work for fifteen years and, somewhere down the line, you have a poem or two you don’t hate, or a few checks from stories you sold. But gifts are not the same things as rewards. Rewards are earned; gifts are freely given. And I can’t say I’ve ever heard a writer talk at length about the gifts of writing.
When I read that quote by Anne Lamott, though, it put me in a new frame of mind. Have I been grateful for writing enough? Not for the things I write, but for the gifts that writing gives me even before I open a notebook?
The answer is, of course, “Not at all.” So, in the interest of mindfulness, the cultivation of a thankful spirit, and list-making, here is my Top Five Gifts That Writing Gives Me, with some significant help from Anne Lamott and Bird by Bird.
1. Excuses to do cool stuff
There is nothing I love more than going into my local library to look up something weird. A few weeks back, I checked out half the section on radioactivity. (None of the books dished on X-Men-style mutations.) More recently, I had some difficulties finding books about the history of Romania. Finding books about crematorium practices and death rituals around the world have become something of an annual thing for me.
One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore.
The world is big, and there’s absolutely no reason not to see as much of it as you can, whether through books, the internet, or actual travel. If you’re interested in the world outside yourself, which you must be if you’re telling stories, then why not go see it?
This leads to the next gift, which is…
Another [gift] is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.
Writing gives you a free pass to learn about and empathize with the weird, the unexpected, the overlooked, the undervalued, the strangely beautiful. We live in an old and tightly-packed world, and we can only ever know the smallest bit of it. But if you want to write, then you have every reason to find out just a bit more. Widen your horizons and you’ll probably write more humbly; the more voices you hear, the less impressive your own sounds in your ears. Which is always a good thing.
And, yes, this is absolutely a gift, as the direction of character development is always a gift. What’s not to celebrate about this side effect of writing that might gently nudge you to be better than you were the day before, more selfless and thoughtful towards the world around you?
3. Good work
That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. (xxvi)
One of the best things about finishing my last novel was that the act of writing—the harmony of mental and physical concentration—became good work, in the most spiritually invigorating way.
Even when I knew I wasn’t writing a polished, high-quality draft, I still liked doing the work, because I was writing anyway. I was working at something that I cared about. That’s good work, and the opportunity to do good work is a gift.
4. A place in the Grand Scheme
In this dark and wounded society, writing can give you the pleasures of the woodpecker, of hollowing out a hole in a tree where you can build your nest and say, “This is my niche, this is where I live now, this is where I belong.” And the niche may be small and dark, but at last you will finally know what you are doing.
You’ll never be able to know how long your words last, how many people’s lives you touch with the narratives inside your brain. Maybe you’ll see hundreds of people cheer for you at a major convention; maybe you’ll have a five-star review on Goodreads claiming your poetry changed the reader’s life. Or maybe not.
But knowing the grand sum of your reach is, I’m relieved to say, not necessary. It’d be nice (if it were possible!), but, at your core, you don’t write to know you made a difference. You write because you do. You write because you’re supposed to, and maybe the only person you’ll ever knowingly impact is yourself. That’s fine; that’s one whole person. Anything beyond that, as T.S. Eliot says, “is not our business.”
Writing, for me, is like a jigsaw puzzle. And I love jigsaw puzzles. With writing, not only do I get to worry over all the pieces fitting together just so, I get to choose the picture myself—even color in the more unique portions!
I love prewriting. I love the brainstorming, picking at some knotty problem until it slowly unravels to reveal something fantastic, exciting, intriguing, disturbing, heartbreaking—in other words, something fun. And, as mentioned, I love writing, too, putting all my theoretical formulas and structures into practice, letting the characters gasp awake and promptly ruin all my plans by making them better. I even love editing: paper freshly warm from the printer, the aroma of ink, the pens and notebooks and endless tinkering. It’s the heady feeling of being better at storytelling than the past version of myself, aka the slob who produced the literary equivalent of a greasy old pizza box, which I am now reworking with spit and panache into the Mona Lisa. It’s fun. It’s not everybody’s type of fun, but it’s mine. And having good fun is one of the best gifts of all.
There are bountiful reasons to work hard at storytelling, to know that good writing doesn’t come easy or soon, to remember that your truest, most lasting motivations are easily obscured by the prospect of fame or intellectual vanity or maybe impressing the cute guy ahead of you in the Starbucks line. There are plenty of reasons to remember that writing is hard, and even to be grateful for the hurdles to jump.
But that’s hard in and of itself. It’s nice to remind ourselves, once in a while, of the sweet, easy things that writing gives us, as it graciously ignores our motivations du jour, our issues with time commitment, and the fact that we want to talk about writing more than we want to sit in the chair and write.
Writing can be nice without caveat. We, as our own little subculture, might rethink our relentless onslaught of doom and warnings, and embrace a more easygoing attitude instead. Think of what we have in writing, and write with gratitude in mind!
What gifts have you received from the act of writing?
I’m an English graduate from Mobile, Alabama, whose senior thesis was the establishment of a literary journal for the university. (It’s now been taken over by the current senior year and I’m very proud.) When not writing, preparing to write, or complaining about writing, I like to read, crochet, listen to DnD podcasts, and take long walks in the woods. I’m now a page at the local library, bemoaning the fact that pages aren’t allowed to reserve books for themselves while working. My blog, with reviews and biweekly storytelling posts, can be found at sympatheticmagicblog.wordpress.com.
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