Rilke: If you are capable of living without writing, don't be a writer.
On trips hitchhiking through Europe in college, whenever they picked me up in France and asked what I did, my answer was "Je suis un ecrivain." (I am a writer.) It was the first thing I learned to say in the language.
It was a lifetime ago for most intents and purposes. My "brilliant career," as somebody once said, didn't happen--though the intention has never left me, nor have I stopped writing manuscripts of one sort or other.
In conscious memory, it began when I was perhaps twelve and a branch scraped my aunt's window on a sleep over. It could have been a form of madness--but it sounded like words, so I wrote them down. There were other signs. In the third grade the nun told my mother I read with "great feeling" and in the tenth I was picked to read the section in religion class about masturbation; dear Sister Renella knew I was the most likely to get through it.
When I escaped Catholic school in the 12th grade I ran with a pack in public school who read each other their poems. Today they'd call us nerds. We called ourselves the kooks. Ow, ah, the wind, wrote Frank. Rather evident, like a nail driven through the head, or a ton of garbage on the bed, wrote Douglas. It was run by a teacher who seduced us, but it was a small price to pay. At least, I learned I wasn't entirely a misfit and it was okay to read books and keep them nearby.
About that time, I recall reading an article in Time Magazine, drapped over a footstool, about how the best artists were the masters of all the "styles" in their art, and originality meant doing what hadn't been done before. It meant I had to learn 99 per cent of "art" is imitation, conscious or unconscious, the rest the product of hard work, and luck. Originality is a double edged sword.
In college, I met teachers who encouraged me, people I will never forget, of course, which is true of all artists regardless of the medium. I took the bait hard, way too hard for anyone's well being and had nobody to consult. Plan "B" was a difficult birth. I never really wanted to do anything else, and still don't, even after 30ty years in another profession.
I am a writer.
Whenever I got a few bucks ahead, or even if I didn't and the idea was too good, it would overpower me and I became a slave until writing "the end" so I could begin living again. Writing provided stability in times of chaos, hope in times of despair, and the occasional exposure often at the exact moment when I might have beaten the curse if my byline hadn't appeared.
There have been times when I've hated myself for it, and still occasionally do, but my record away from the typewriter, or processor as the case may be has only been three years, and it took a breakdown to cause it. I've prayed for something to take its place, but nothing has.
Writing is my "discipline." It's how I clean house, sweep away the terror, provide a purpose, a center, a raison d'etat. It makes me unable to care about what anybody thinks, relieving me momentarily from the need to please, putting me both on a pillar with a limitless view and beneath the sea where I find squirming creatures to lift from the muck at the bottom.
It also protects me from the vicissitudes of sloth and aimlessness: A writer is someone who always has something to do--a dream that will not die--and filing cabinets full of rotting corpses. I've written hundreds of poems, a half dozen novels, plays, screenplays, short stories, memoirs, reports, reviews, travel articles, processes, and keep a journal compulsively as if my life depends on it, which I believe it does, and am particularly addicted to the feeling of my pen floating across a pristine piece of paper. Ow, ah, the wind indeed Frank.
What I am NOT and what I think writers are NOT is a polemicist. I don't write a word for the purpose of arguing a particular, preordained or ideological point of view. "Formulas for success" give me gas. The "genres" are a necessary evil, and most writers will tell you that. That is the writer in the service of the collective, the conventional, and the dull. Literature is a gift from God like children and orgasm.
I think a "writer" takes their stories and issues as they come with the purpose of providing a perspective that is not necessarily intellectual. The heart is more important. If controversy can't be avoided we let folks know not everyone is easily bullied by what has gone before, or is accepted. I believe the history of those who are considered and admired universally as writers proves the point. "Isms" are b o r i n g.
I am a writer.
When I complete a project I'm filled with satisfaction and excitement though I know the battle has only begun. When young, I'd organize my marketing plan, keep track of who I sent what, full of great expectations, but no more. I can barely deal with my own madness and the madness of the world is beyond me. I'm looking for somebody who knows the business, and believes in me.
I am a writer.
My task is finding the exact spot where every word in the dictionary belongs. I've "unlearned" the lessons the non-writer "experts" teach. There's plenty of them. I arrange the words in the required order and spell the best I can, but know that is not writing. That is the death of writing. That is the bearer of the fear that kills the impulse, the need, the passion, the fucking joy.
I am a writer.
I do this because I must. It's a matter of identity and self-respect. I do this so those who know me know who and what I am. A work is only ever brought to a conclusion due to the writer's fate, and then it is disseminated or will burn with their body or get thrown out with the trash.
I am a poet. I am a novelist. I am a playwright. I am a screenwriter. I am an essayist. I am a cultural arbiter. I am an insufferable romantic at an age when I should know better. I know who my heroes are and I know why. I know a good book or script when I see one, even if it's written by me. I'm willing to send out the challenge: maybe you don't believe in me yet, but you will if you read me.
It's all neatly and precisely contained in the words: I am a writer. This is who will know me who does not know me. Je suis un ecrivain, mon ami, je suis un ecrivain.
I am a writer.
You cannot take this away from me.