I love to write; I have a passion for putting words on paper that transcends time and human relationships. I will go to outrageous lengths to feed my habit. Writing totally consumes me, my conscious mind and subconscious, my dreams, memories, plans for the future, even the way I deal with my own mortality.
I learned something about myself the day I thought I was having a heart attack at the computer. Pain slammed my lower chest like a wrecking ball. I literally could not breathe. Although I’d never had symptoms, my first thought was, “It’s my heart. This pain will travel up, out and along my left arm. I will lose consciousness, fall to the floor and die right here in front of my computer.”
My reaction was automatic. I reached for the keyboard and saved the document I’d been working on. I inserted a diskette and copied to further preserve it. I managed to exit, knowing the screen saver would protect my precious hard disk and its directories. I felt a flash of satisfaction. I might be dead, but my words would survive. It was a defining moment.
Does this incident make me sound egocentric? Yes, I agree; it does; maybe I am. Maybe writers have to be. Others rarely understand what we’re trying to do. Perhaps that’s why we become so fiercely protective of the prose fragments, poems, novels, all those products of years of struggle. We go through a kind of torture, simply to make them exist outside our brains. A writer routinely becomes a thief, stealing time from loved ones, from jobs with paychecks, diverting grocery money to purchase books and computers and to go on research trips. No wonder my first thought was to save my novel.
Such instincts are born in us, I think. We storytellers have a congenital condition called writer’s brain. (That’s what I call mine. WB for short.) Writers, for better or worse, are not like other people. That manic, creative engine behind our brow drives and directs us.
My WB surprises and angers me at times. An example: My husband–my Polack–died many years ago. Big Polish funeral. Flowers, processions, candles, liturgical music, incense. I found myself following the priest down the aisle, clutching my brother’s sleeve, my grown children and their spouses behind me, all trailing my husbands covered casket to the altar. I thought I’d cried all my tears, but they flooded again and I almost fell.
Suddenly, my WB jerked me up against the ceiling. I could see myself, immersed in grief, walking with bowed head.
“Watch,” WB whispered. “Observe how a mourning widow looks and feels. You can use this if you ever need a character like her in a book.”
I gasped and straightened, furious my damned writer’s brain had intruded at such a private moment. My brother’s arm came around me. He thought that I-who had been so strong-was faltering at last. I shook my head, signaling I was all right.
I was able to continue as the funeral Mass started. The age-old rituals, even my anger, had revived and strengthened me. My WB and I were one again. At least I would never lose her.
If you sincerely want to write, instead of (as the saying goes) “want merely to have written”, study. Be your own teacher. It’s a process, a matter of practice. Construct your primary characters, give them life. Create a self concept, a personality for each. These people require dreams and agendas, goals, missions, crises and conflicts. Give them villains, lovers, circles of friends and enemies. Only you can instill the motivations they need to embark on their adventures. You give them the persistence to fight, to win and emerge triumphant, with suitable closure. It’s all up to you.
Barbara BK Reeves