The Last Word
You know, I've always wanted to write a book...
It often happens at parties, or while standing in line at the grocery store, most often when a friend introduces me as a writer to someone. A little flicker in the eye, a tiny pursed smile, a pulse beat of hesitation as if the speaker is judging my trustworthiness. Then the confession: "You know, I've always wanted to write a book."
I never quite know what to say to those folks, confessing their secret desires to me. It's a little like seeing someone you barely know come out of an adult bookshop and greet you loudly. Part of me is honored; after all admitting a desire to write a book is hard and I must look like a safe confessor. Occasionally, I feel as though the speaker is really telling me that anyone can do what I do, with a hubris that translates: "If I had only the time I'd write a book."
The urge to tell a story is a profoundly human characteristic. My dog fibs to me sometimes, but has never launched into a narrative about who she saw at the dog park. Humans tell stories all day long. Just listen sometime to a couple talking to each other. "And then I...and she, like, said..." Drama aside, they're probably talking about buying groceries. I have a cousin who, when we were children, regaled me with delightful stories, filled with detail and compelling drama. I'd make her back up and tell the good bits over and over. She entertained me for hours, priming my own urge to tell stories.
Not every person longs to put words on paper, but those who do are often the same ones who doubt they have the skills. (And so many with no skill seem undeterred by the lack.) They really do have a story in mind and their shy confessions take a lot of guts. I know that when I was a closet writer, I would have died before admitting an unfulfilled dream, especially to someone who'd done it.
The question is - what can I say to them that will mean something? I'm not sure what's expected of me. Advice? Maybe. Or, is this confession really just expressing a pleasant fantasy?
The pipedream of writing a book is a pure and gentle fantasy. As often portrayed in movies, writers pound away at their manual typewriters, cigarette smoke wafting about their heads, whiskey glasses at their fingertips. They rip perfect pages out of the platen and - voilà - a book is published. It's done. Let the bucks pour in.
The reality is so less dramatic. Write a line, delete half a line, write another line. Whoa, is that accurate, is it really called a platen? Log on to the Internet or go to the library to fact check. Put face in hands, rub eyes. Okay. Four hundred pages done. Now go back and revise the whole thing. For the second time. There really isn't a moment when a writer feels that the work is done. Really done. Perfect. But deadlines and promises are made to be honored and eventually you've got to let go. And the bucks ain't all that great. I figure by the end of a novel, I've earned a penny a word.
Sometimes what I'm told is, "I have a book in my head."
That's good, a start. "So," I ask, happy to talk shop, "have you started writing?
"Oh, gosh no. I don't have the time."
"Okaaay. How 'bout those Red Sox?"
No books were written lodged permanently in someone's head. There is a legitimate urge in some people to tell a story. But what is formed in the imagination can be difficult to get down on paper; the story is there, but the transition from brain to pen is incomprehensible. A writer friend of mine suggests to those with no idea how to start, to pretend they're writing a letter. Just address it to a friend and tell him the story.
So, I always tell my would-be writers that they should just do it. Go ahead, stick those toes in the pool. If you've got a great idea, work it out. If you have a story in mind, but no idea of how to begin, go to a class, or amuse yourself over a keyboard. Don't write with the idea of a book between covers; first and foremost you should write to entertain yourself. Don't write with a product in mind, but a work of art. And, yes, you do have to revise.
It's good to encourage people to follow a dream, if that dream is anything more than the whim of the moment. If you have the passion in your belly to get your story told - good for you. Get started.
Susan Wilson lives in Oak Bluffs. She is the author of five published novels and is working on her sixth. She also freelances, specializing in equine topics. Her column will appear on the OpEd Page twice monthly. Ms. Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at her web site: www.susanwilsonwrites.com.