Saturday, February 18, 2006

Swimming Alone

In the beginning, when I first started searching for words, diving in the hope of discovering hidden stories somewhere inside myself, I was sure that I was swimming alone.

Even though I knew other writers were swimming in the water around me, each diving for his or her own unique stories, I didn't yet know how closely the process of writing--and reading-- linked us to each other.

There's a belief--and I don't know where it comes from--that writers must do all their work alone, struggling in solitude, learning the craft of writing and story-telling through a painful process of self-education that is all the more difficult because of the solitude.

For years I bought into this belief thinking that if I was a true writer, I had to prove it by finding what I needed to know about writing without anyone's help.

Somehow I succumbed to the myth that words would shoot down from the sky like bolts of lightening and flash through my pen onto the paper like magic--Hollywood magic--only if I worked alone. Through hundreds of pages I struggled this way, floundering in words.

I didn't realize--because of the blindness of youth--that I was never really swimming alone.

Once I learned to open my eyes in the water, I could see writers everywhere... working together... sharing what they'd learned on the pages of the very books that I held in my hands.

Now I hold onto the pages of books as if the stories they contain are rafts thrown to save my life.

In stories I discover companions who share their deepest secrets with me. Heart to heart. Soul to soul.

It took years for me to see through this myth of the solitary writer.

Yes, writers must work alone. Writing is a solitary pursuit, and solitude is essential for the work to be done. How else can we put our words down on paper? But we don't need to work in solitary confinement.

To understand this notion, I think I needed, first, to demystify the process of writing, and, more importantly, to become a person.

This notion of becoming a person before we can put true words on paper is described in Talent Is Not Enough, a collection of essays on writing by the Scottish children's novelist, Molly Hunter.

"The child that was myself was born with a little talent," writes Hunter, "and I have worked hard, hard, hard, to shape it. Yet even this could not have made me a writer, for there is no book can tell anything worth saying unless life itself has first said it to the person who conceived that book. A philosophy has to be hammered out, a mind shaped, a spirit tempered. This is true for all of the craft. It is the basic process which must happen before literature can be created."

Before "anything worth saying" can be written, we must become... ourselves.

Writing, then, isn't only about putting words on paper.

It's about living...and sharing ideas... and thinking about our words aloud... and taking risks (and sometimes failing) in the pursuit of our stories.

In time, if we keep at it... keep swimming and stay in the water... we are given a gift, of sorts: a clearer understanding of the world and ourselves.

This understanding may come in solitude.

Or it may come through an ongoing process of interacting with people and engaging with life.

It depends on which process works best for you... at any given moment in your life.

So, read and think deeply about words. Let the stories of other writers sink into you like hot coals, and watch as your own stories boil and rise to the surface.

And don't be afraid of swimming through the myth of solitude to share what you've learned about writing and life with others.

None of us are swimming alone.

P.S - A special note of thanks to Wordswimmer's guest authors to date--J. Irvin Kuns, Sarah Dessen, and Steven Schnur--who so graciously shared lessons that they've learned from their own works- and lives-in-progress, and, of course, to the many thoughtful writers who have swum through the myth of solitude to post their comments.

1 comment:

jo'r said...

Hi Bruce; I think one good aid for the solitary writer is to set aside some time each evening for reading the work of another writer. Whether fiction or non-fiction. At least for me it works to get out into another world than the one I'm trying to create. Taking the edge off my own solitude, I mean. The book I just finished certainly does that: "The Last Gentleman Adventurer--coming of age in the Arctic," by Edward Beauclerk Maurice. The writer was sixteen when he traveled from England to take a job in Hudson's Bay Company at a trading post on Baffin Island in the far north. Lots of fascinating detail about living among the Inuit, the Eskimos. It enriches my wonder about life and I hope that somehow shows more in my own writing. Good blogging, Bruce; look forward to checking in again.