Monday Musings: Anyone Can Write, Writers Can’t Not Write

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by Kathleen Valentine

content_writerIt happens every now and then. I am talking to someone and, when they find out I am a writer with over two dozen titles available, they say, “I’ve been thinking about writing a book.” Usually this conversation is not headed in a positive direction. I tell them whatever seems appropriate at the time. “Where do you get your ideas?” they ask. Like Ray Bradbury, my problem is not getting ideas, my problem is not tripping over them when I get out of bed in the morning. Then they ask the question that makes me a little crazy, “But how do you know what people will buy? How can you be sure your story will be successful?” The truth is you don’t and that’s fine.

I’ve been a writer all my life. As a little kid, I wrote plays for the other kids in the neighborhood to act out in our garage, to a very patient group of parents sitting in lawn chairs in the driveway. In high school I wrote for the school newspaper and I also got a lot of compliments from teachers on various papers I wrote. In college I was the editor of my campus literary magazine, and over the years I wrote reams and reams of very bad poetry. After a brief infatuation with Samuel Beckett, I wrote an absolutely awful existential play that even the kindest writing teacher I ever knew told me to burn.

I wrote letters, I wrote journals, after a workshop with Julia Cameron I wrote three years worth of “morning papers” (I still have some—they’re embarrassing) and then, when I was in my forties I started writing short stories. I did this for a friend who was going through a rough spot in her life. I made my stories very romantic and atmospheric just as a special little gift for her. She loved some of them, some she said needed work, but eventually I edited and edited and edited until I culled them down to the stories In My Last Romance and other passions.

It wasn’t until a couple years later that I decided to write a novel. As a kid spending summer vacations in a Great Lakes seaport town with my godparents, I had developed a romantic fascination with the working waterfront. Later, I went to college in that town and my fascination around that rough part of town (rough back in the Sixties) grew. The locus of my fascination was a bar called the Mermaid Tavern. I was too young to go into bars then and too scared even if I wasn’t too young. But I vowed someday I would.

Years went by and I lived several states away when I had occasion to return to my old stomping grounds. By then I had plenty of experience going into bars and I was determined to at last fulfill my fantasy. But, alas, it was not to be. It was now the mid-Eighties and urban renewal had sanitized my old neighborhood. I went back home heartbroken and disillusioned. But the Mermaid Tavern had imprinted itself on my writer’s soul and I could not let it go. I started writing and I could not stop.

It took ten years for The Old Mermaid’s Tale: A Novel of the Great Lakes to become a reality, but, see, that’s the thing. I couldn’t NOT write it. The story owned me. It had chosen me to write it and I couldn’t turn away until it was done.

This is what I believe: we are all called to do certain things in life and we have to do them. We can push ourselves to do other things, of course, but the thing we were meant to do won’t let us alone until we do it. Maybe you were meant to paint, or dance, or cook, or raise chickens. You can do other things, but it is the thing that you cannot NOT do that is crucial. You can think about writing but, if you are a writer, you’ll write regardless of anything else.

Thanks for reading.

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About Kathleen Valentine

From the Allegheny Mountains where she grew up, to the Gloucester seaport where she wrotes, Kathleen Valentine loved nothing more than listening to the stories that people tell while sitting on front porches, gathered around kitchen tables, or swapped in coffee shops and taverns. Her collection of legends, folklore, and tall tales were woven into her fiction. The award-winning author of novels, novellas, & short story collections, as well as books of knitting patterns, & a cookbook/memoir about growing up Pennsylvania Dutch, Valentine has been listed as an Amazon Top Selling Author in Horror, Mystery/Suspense, Cooking, and Knitting. As a writer her primary interest was delving into the psychology of her characters. Her stories were sometimes mysterious, sometimes funny, usually romantic, and frequently frightening. Her characters ranged from lost children and grumpy old folks, to mysterious men and women who are not to be trifled with. On October 29, 2016, Kathleen passed away in her home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, America's oldest seaport.

Comments

  1. The best response to this awkward problem that crops up for writers again and again is to smile and say, as quickly as possible, “Good luck.” I say this knowing that Kathleen’s essay isn’t really asking for a solution. But the quicker I can shut down this kind of painful conversation between the conditionally aspiring writer and myself, the better because there’s always a danger of feeling insulted and I hate feeling insulted. Someone I know sat on my couch and held forth for a very long hour about how bad “Wolf Hall” was and how this acquaintance (a non writer) could and would do something so much better. I was torn between trying to be nice and arguing on behalf of the book (which I’d never even read). The encounter was so awful that this person, someone I had liked and spent time with, is no longer in my circle of friends. There’s something essential missing in a person who makes such a thoughtless claim and, sadly, that missing piece is also essential to the friendship. It’s called respect.

    • That’s a very astute observation, Rae! I agree that when respect is missing it is hard for conversations and/or relationships to progress. I am always surprised by people who say “I was thinking about writing a book someday.” If you were a writer you would be writing now.