On Being An Unexpected Writer

Writing fiction is one of the central features of my life.

Confession: that sentence evokes a strange feeling of dislocation as I write it. It’s strange to think about just how many hours per week I spend writing and thinking about fiction.

This wasn’t my life’s goal, not something I always dreamed of doing when I grew up. I read loads of novels and short stories, of course, in all sorts of genres: Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, horror, etc. To write them, though… this was never something I ever considered.

Mostly, this was due to other, stronger passions and career ambitions. In part, it was because my family and culture regarded storytelling skill as trivial bullshitting and blarney, a fine ability to go with conviviality among family and friends, but not anything that should be regarded as an actual skill with any real marketable value. In part, though, it was because I took up with my mother’s milk the assumption that (in the unfortunate lingo of Missouri in the 1970s) “only drug addicts, queers and Communists” wrote books. It might be OK to READ books sometimes, but it wouldn’t be at all respectable to WRITE them.

Needless to say, I didn’t fit in well as a child.

How strange it is, then, that after so many years of thinking that writing is something that only “other people” do, a respectable, boring, 9-to-5 day job, statistically average guy like me should recognize writing as one of the mainstays of my life. The foundations laid down in my youth still whisper that this is somehow wrong. Playing a sport of some kind (softball, bowling, cycling, hunting, etc.) would be a sufficiently manly past-time, as would the watching of other grown men play a sport of some kind (football, baseball, basketball, auto racing, etc.). Even watching cooking shows, political screaming and other forms of mindless television for hours on end would be more acceptable. After all, who in their right mind would deliberately make things up and not only write them down, but worry over the phrasing so that their lies would be more convincing? Every now and then, the cognitive dissonance can be almost overwhelming.

How important is writing to me? When other things don’t go well, I dust off my hands and get on with the next task. When my writing doesn’t go well, I agonize, lying awake at night wondering what has gone wrong with me.

Recently, I read that Miguel de Cervantes didn’t start writing until he was in his forties. He never wanted to be a writer; he worked for, and succeeded at, a career in the army. It was only after twenty-odd years of military service that he began to cast around for something else to do, some new passion in which to invest his hours. “Don Quixote” was one of the works that resulted, probably the best known work of Spanish literature in all of history.

I wonder if Major Cervantes’ superiors knew that he was a scribbling away on odd bits of parchment during his lunch breaks and on slow afternoons in the quartermaster’s office. All those reports, memos, budgets and other administrative tasks that were so vitally important at the time are now just dust, unrecorded and unremembered. If only all writers with day jobs could draw comfort from latter-day success of their hobbyist fictions!

My first real book is out in the world, trying to find a home. I’m working hard not to build up expectations for how it will fare in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel competition. My next book is banging at the doors of my mind, trying to get out and onto the page.

Do other writers function the way I do? Is your writing a pair of glasses through which you view the world?

12 thoughts on “On Being An Unexpected Writer

  1. I’m 48. I suppose if Miguel de Cervantes can successfully do battle with windmills, so can I.

  2. Your last question: “Is your writing a pair of glasses through which you view the world?” has an interesting answer for me.

    Growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be travelling to the stars by now, or at least to Mars. But my H.S. guidance counselor told me that my unfortunate need for eyeglasses would prevent me from doing so… and my dreams were dashed. So, I started writing about travelling to the stars. And usually, my starship captains have glasses. And a perpensity for being vegetarian and drinking coffee, but that’s not really the point. Assuming I actually have a point, it is that the dream of being a writer was not there as a kid, though I did enjoy writing. And I do look at my days as having been more successful if I spend some of my time writing or thinking about a writing project.

  3. In my case, it was “monkey see, monkey do.” I was an avid reader as a child, and somewhere along the line I decided I wanted to write my own stories. I wrote a lot of derivative crud, as I suppose children who want to be writers do, and my mom gave me her old manual typewriter and a typing textbook she’d kept from her high school days. I still have the typewriter.

    After college, I put the desire aside for a long time, perhaps simmering away as the main dish for my midlife crisis, but first blogging and then services like KDP made it possible for me to write, format, and market my stories. Onward and upward!

  4. I always wanted to write, even as a kid. It was a secret desire, pitched to the back of the queue of Acceptable Things to Do with My Life because I had nothing to say and no particular ability to write well. Was also fearful that the real me would show in my work and that I’d be found crazy, lacking, stupid, obtuse, arrogant, and unqualified. Writing the thousands of hidden paragraphs and notes on my computer journal required a password no one could figure out. Still. I worried – what if someone came upon my files and confirmed my suspicions? To expose my writing to an audience, invited or unknown, took a leap I could never make but somehow did. The compulsion to write is one thing, not unlike the involuntary need to pump blood. Many do it in secret, on computers, leather journals, sticky notes, textbook margins, the backs of used envelopes, the slick insides of discarded egg shells. To be public with one’s writing is a different undertaking. I wish you well, Tony. You’re doing what you were meant to do, no matter the offbeat route. A most noble endeavor at that.

    • I wrote and wrote for years before deciding to show any of it to anyone. It takes a huge leap of faith to put yourself out there. I admire anyone who bares their soul to readers and reviewers.

  5. When my world doesn’t go well, I hide in my writing. It takes me to my ‘fictional’ life where heroes are super, personal flaws are empowering and events always have a happy ending (at least for us thriller writers).

  6. I couldn’t agree more.

    I, too, didn’t start writing until late in life. It simply never occurred to me that I could, even though I read voraciously as a child and an adult. My parents do not read books for pleasure.

    But yes, my writing is my outlet, my artist expression. Don’t laugh! Zombie unicorns and flesh-eating gnomes can be art, dammit, because there simply isn’t enough humor in the world. Not on purpose, at least.

    Don’t worry about the Amazon Novel thing. If not there, elsewhere, because The Grammarian will not be silenced. Someone has to defend decent punctuation (and citizens) everywhere! 🙂

    • It simply never occurred to me that I could

      So true! For me, it was coming to the realization that I didn’t need anyone’s permission to write, or any certification or training. I could just… tell a story, then work on being able to tell better and better stories. It was liberating!

      I appreciate your faith in the Grammarian more than you know, Cathy. 😎

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