I might have been an architect or an elementary school teacher, an artist or an engineer. The wonder of attending college was all the choice. I considered my options, changed my major and minor twice. Among the choices, I also wanted to be passionate about my career path.
I chose writing and never doubted its rightness. Writing would be my way of life, my identity, my service. I would teach writing and literature. I would publish, be a publisher, an editor. Writing could help me to help others. There was no pretense.
I took time and studied, immersing myself in books and words. The lessons have made all the difference, this handful among them:
Writing is an act within proximity. What we need to write about is here. Robert Frost invited his readers to “come, too,” out to the fields around his New England home; Wendell Berry instructed us to stay home. My favorite writers show us how to claim territory and to write about what we know. Wherever “here” is, is a fine place to begin.
To borrow from Flannery O’Connor, writing is a “habit of being.” Daily hygiene — the brushing of teeth, the combing of hair — is habit, as is driving daily routes to work, or how someone sips a cup of coffee. The habit of being is the writer’s perpetual awareness and requires a degree of selflessness. O’Connor wrote, “You have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.” She also wrote that knowing “oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks ... . The first product of self-knowledge is humility.” Ego gets in the way of being.
After all, writers are obligated to their readers. Frost called the writer a “kindly gentleman” who writes to succeed for the reader’s sake. Writing is a careful proposition like the art of walking a high wire. Be willing to revise so as not to misstep. William Faulkner wrote, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Stephen King added, years later, “Even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart.” While we may love the sound of our own voices or our private imagery, readers need us to connect with them.
Writing should be purposeful. “It is difficult to get the news from poems,” William Carlos Williams wrote, but people perish “every day for lack of what is found there.” Metaphorically, writing brings us the news and weather of our human community.
Good writers read — a lot. As Descartes noted, reading good books is “like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.” These conversations teach us much about how to think and communicate. As Ray Bradbury wrote in “Fahrenheit 451,” “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Writers help to keep the culture alive.