order |noun| the arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method
This weekend, at a creative writing workshop, I found myself having lunch with a stranger by a very windy version of Lake Geneva. We started by ordering coffee and, when we found our conversation to be a comfortable fit, added two bowls of soup to our bill. “Great,” I told her. “I always wanted to have a backwards lunch!” To which she smiled and responded that maybe we should ask each other’s names first. Just like our lunch, our conversation was made-up of the right steps in the wrong order. As we teetered around different topics, a lowered soup spoon revealed an unexpectedly knowing smile. “What?”, I asked. Turns out, we were both lawyers in differing verb tenses – hers present, mine past tense.
This has become such a familiar tune – frustrated lawyers drawing their pens for a more soulful use of words. They seem to flock to every literary island where I’ve perched in my year of “island hopping”. My Leicester writing class had an ex-Magic Circle solicitor. (If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry. It’s not as cool as it sounds. No capes, no wands and certainly no magic). My Milanese online course was rife with would-be authors inhabiting the fringes of the law. And now in Geneva, there sat before me this lovely Belgian lawyer with lots of smart things to say about writing.
My path from law to letters, from lex to lexicon has been a long and winding one. Where some people may see mistakes, I see the right steps in the right order. True, I’m still looking for ways to avoid telling people my literary career began in Leicester. But I’m more than fine with facing up to the one year of literature at university that turned into a law degree that turned into a decade of armor-clad lawyering that swerved back into literature. I still trust those decisions and stand behind each and every one.
I don’t know much, but I know enough to recognize that although failure in this task (and the task is to be a good writer) is highly likely, the alternative of not heeding this call is much worse. Although convoluted, this path gave me things essential to my life today – my husband included. It also gave me some pretty damn useful street smarts – like how to smell an ulterior motive when it’s drenched in perfume. Case in point, if I performed all of the vital tasks spun by the Social Media Merlins, I’d have no time left over to write. I’d be like that popular blogger-guy blogging about writing his first novel… instead of writing his first novel! And here silly me thought writing was the whole point of being a writer. But, as I keep saying, what the hell do I know!? In any case, I’m not buying into that bogus magic either. As the bumper sticker says, there is no elevator to success; you have to take the stairs – you have to write a good book.
So until proof to the contrary, I’m going to stick to my guns and say that what makes a writer a writer is that she writes. Publishing seems to be highly advisable as well. (Go figure!) As does making a best-seller list, snagging some awards and a film option. Being nominated by Oprah for her Book of the Month Club is a financial jackpot – but none of these things are what makes you a writer. None of these things will save you from lit-oblit (literary obliteration) if you haven’t written a kick-ass good book. And for that, you must write, write, write and rub a “hole into your head in the process”. That was the sage advice I got from seasoned author Bret Lott in my writing workshop (http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/Jewel-by-Bret-Lott. I’d link to his author website… but he doesn’t have one! The social media strategy box is the only of the above boxes he doesn’t tick and for that he is my hero.) Many other writers would say the same. One of my favorites, Flannery O’Connor, said “writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.” So I better have a damn good reason to want to do this, because odds are it will wreak havoc on my looks. Plus – me being me – I don’t want to just do it à la Nike, I want to be good… drive is a remnant of my law laps, I guess. But you won’t see me pushing it out the door any time soon.
When it comes to art, there are no prizes for trying. You are judged on what you produce. To add insult to injury, no one knows exactly how this mysterious thing of writing is done. There are no magic recipes. So it looks like we are just as badly off as the Magic Circle and Social Media Merlins. We do have something close to magic though: the “elusive creative genie” Elizabeth Gilbert insightfully reminded us of in her fabulous Ted Talk that I will not shut-up about (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA).
The great books will be the ones that indelibly describe something about our human existence – now isn’t that concrete and helpful? But that is the task, I think: to master the ability to combine those arbitrary little graphic designs called letters in such a way that their reach is wider than the ink and pixels that embody them. After that, we – as readers and writers – have to keep our fingers crossed that the good books will be the ones to get published and celebrated. But as Flannery also said, “there’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
In any case, no masterpiece is slipping out of my fingers any time soon. I’m still quite clumsily stringing words together and wrestling with my genie. I am well aware I will most likely fail in my endeavors (“no one gets published, female writers even less so, and even if you get published, no one will read it, and if they do, they’ll hate it”… yeah, yeah, I know). But everyday, I pry open my MacBook and pound away with an idiosyncratic mixture of method and madness, joy and desperation, tea and gin. People are the only creatures on the earth that desire things larger than themselves. That is what art is about and why it is a necessity. To dedicate my time and energy to this seems like a pretty good use of a life to me. Flannery O’Connor put it this way, “people without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them.”