We all know the feeling. We have the burning urge to write. We must get it down on paper. We feel we are about to self-combust. There are leaping in our heart like trout in a flaming lake, and we are sure that the world would benefit by them if only we could get them out.
The only question is: what are they?
It seems to me, at the age of forty-four, that this describes how I felt throughout my teens and early twenties. For several years, I had what could only be described as an unfocused yearning. It was so great that it sometimes kept me up at night. I’ve never really wanted anything other than to be a writer. But I didn’t care about becoming wealthy or famous, except as a byproduct. What I really wanted to do was write something so beautiful and true that all who read it would be forever altered, something that I myself would be so proud of that I could point to it and say, You see? This is what I can do.
I have no idea what made me this way. I have plenty of theories, of course. But in this respect, I’m like the man who is walking across a bridge over a river and suddenly notices his pants are on fire. He can stand there wondering why his pants are on fire, he can complain about how unfair it is that his pants are on fire, he can try to blame someone else for setting his pants on fire–or he can jump in the water. It doesn’t matter why I want to write. It just matters that I do.
Time and time again, I sat down at my little desk in the basement of the house in which I grew up in Erie, PA, only to stare at the blank paper in my typewriter (I had a typewriter then, because this was a thousand years ago) without a clue what key I should hit first.
What did I want to say?
Before I could answer that question, I had to answer a deeper question: Who was the ‘I’ who felt he had something to say?
Writing, especially fiction, is a personal journey. This is the real purpose of it–not to become a best-selling author, but to come to know ourselves.
If becoming a professional author is your goal, then fine, but you will have to accept at some point that your personal journey of discovery is not necessarily what everyone wants to read about. People read fiction to be transported and entertained–not to find out what makes you, personally, tick.
What we’re talking about here is not what’s going to make an editor leap out of his chair and order a hundred thousand copies. You might never write about the things you discover about yourself. Instead, we’re talking about unwrapping the secrets of your soul and getting you in touch with the source of your power as a writer. Then you can write whatever you want, and if it’s a best-selling paperback, more power to you. But if
it’s a handwritten and -illustrated journal that your relatives don’t even know exists until you die and they’re cleaning out your desk, then that’s just as worthy a pursuit. We are not talking right now about getting published. We are talking, very simply, about writing. There are some big differences between the two. Writing is an art form. Publishing is a business. The former does not necessarily involve the latter.
There are some key points you need to remember if you are having trouble getting started. If you have that urge to write but you don’t know what to say, you have to consider two possibilities.
The first is this: maybe you just need to spend some quiet time getting in touch with whatever it is deep inside you that wants to come bubbling to the surface. Turn off your television, put away your phone, tell no one where you are going, and leave the house for a while.
Maybe you need to spend some more time out in the world, doing and learning things, so that you have some experiences to write about. Approach the things you are most afraid of. Leave behind that which is familiar. Go out into the world and test yourself. Nobody wants to hear that they’re not ready to start writing, so let me hasten to assure you: that’s not what I mean. The good news, which may seem to you like bad news, is that the burning desire to write is not going to go away. If you decide to go spend a year living in a yurt in Mongolia, that urge will still be there when you’re done… only now you’ll have that amazing experience to add to your inventory of mental touchstones.