I started sending off my stories to magazines when I was thirteen-years-old. (Spin straw into gold. I’d learned that lesson.) I met with success. I might not have felt confident calling up a boy I liked, but I could write a letter to the editor-in-chief of the New York Times, at age eighteen, to say I’d like to write for his newspaper. And he wrote back.
From my late teens, writing was my full-time occupation, and it remains so all these years later. But whereas my mother did her storytelling at dinner parties and restaurants for most of her life, I do mine for pay. It’s an odd way to earn a living, I often think, and I’m a lucky woman to get to do it. But the fantasy of a writer’s life—the literary parties, readings in glamorous places, the solitary desk in view of windswept moors, fire crackling in the grate, whiskey close at hand—bears little resemblance to the writer’s life I know.
The solitary part, at least, is accurate. Except for this: A writer is never free of her characters and her story. We take them with us wherever we go. They may delight and entertain us. But sometimes they haunt us, too.
More mornings than not, I start my day performing an unnatural act in my bed. I wake up thinking about what I will write when I get up. I lie there, meditating on my characters. (Sometimes, too, I think about someone who does exist, though I may not have laid eyes on this person for a decade or more. Perhaps he is even dead. This person may have broken my heart, or maybe I broke his. He may be a murderer or a four-year-old. I may have just imagined he was real.)
I do this because I’m a writer, and that means my workplace—whatever I have in the way of a desk or a chair or a snazzy computer—is my head. I don’t drive to an office. I don’t even need to get dressed to work. Everything that happens, save a little movement of fingers on keyboard, occurs invisibly.
It’s an odd way to begin the day, this business of thinking about characters and situations. But having so little structure or routine or regularity to the work I do, I hold onto this one as a small, familiar path I take—like a daily constitutional—in a life of largely uncharted wandering through uncleared brush. For me, lying there meditating on the stories I’ll tell today (in which, incidentally, my mother or some invented surrogate continues to feature prominently, even nineteen years after her death) remains as much a part of my morning routine as brushing my teeth or making my bed. Soon enough, I’ll head downstairs, put on the coffee (another dependable, repetitious act in my world of too few), and make my way to my desk.
Once I sit down, no more rituals exist to get me through the next few hours. Now there is only me and the blank screen—again. (As, in the old days, it was just me and the typewriter, me and the yellow legal pad.) Just me and my brain.
I can’t complain. My mother raised me to be a writer, and I became one. All of my adult life, my job has been telling stories. With the exception of 11 months in my early 20s, when I worked as a newspaper reporter, and the summer I was a television staff writer in Hollywood, I have never gone to an office, answered to a boss, had to buy suits or pantyhose, or labored in proximity to a water cooler.
In a world filled with individuals whose dream is to quit their day jobs and go write novels or a memoir, I exist as one of that tiny, fortunate minority who can pursue those things between the morning and evening commutes. Writing books is my day job.
The twist is that a writer starts every new day unemployed all over again. Every time the sun comes up—or sets, if you’re a night writer—you have to start from the beginning: Make something out of nothing, transform ideas into words, words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, and sustain it all long enough that when you’re finally done, you have conveyed an experience with sufficient accuracy that even strangers can imagine what it felt like.
But your work is never really done. You are never off-duty. Even assuming you’ve written your story and sold it, and a sufficiently large group of readers liked it, your reward is to start from scratch again. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of words you’ve written, or how many books with your name on them sit on the shelf. Every day, your screen is just as blank as the next guy’s.
So I wake up thinking about my stories. I go to bed thinking about them, too. I couldn’t kick them out of my brain if I wanted to. This makes writing not only the lonely profession it’s rumored to be, but also (ironically) the one least likely to provide peace and quiet. Because our characters—if we’ve done a good job making them come alive, anyway—won’t leave us alone.
THESE CHARACTERS OF ours—the real ones, the ones we invent—move into our heads for a while, and once they take up residence, it’s hard to get them out. Sometimes they’re wonderful, in which case finishing a book and having to bid them goodbye may feel like a small death. Several years ago, after the youngest of my three children left home, I found myself alone—truly alone—as I had not been in over 25 years. I missed my children so badly, I decided to insert, into the novel I was writing at the time, the character of a young boy who closely resembled one of my own sons at age four. Loving this character as I did, wanting to spend time with him, I practically raced to my computer every morning to get him back.
As for those other characters from my life whose absence I mourn—like my parents, dead these many years—I resurrect them regularly when I write. (Also when I teach writing. And it’s as if I’m not even speaking—my mother is—when I say to a student, “Write as if every word cost five dollars,” or “You’re taking the reader to the bathroom again.”)
Of course, when you bring a character to life with depth and authenticity, you don’t always uncork sweetness and light. I brought this lesson home a few years ago when I decided to write a nonfiction book about a crime. Now, all of a sudden, before I’d thought out what this would mean, there I was lying in bed morning after morning and night after night with a murderer and her not particularly sympathetic victim in my head. For the first time in my life, I slept badly, and woke with a sense of unease. The story was fascinating, all right—but toxic, too. When I was done telling it, I knew I’d never write a book like that again.
It’s not enough, I learned, to tell a story well. It should also be a story someone needs to know. In the most old-fashioned way, I discovered that a story requires redemption. Perhaps I don’t need things to turn out happily ever after, but I want to bring the reader to some point of discovery and revelation, and to a destination that matters. I want to tell stories that matter.
MY MEASURE OF a work of storytelling is a surprisingly simple one: Was it—like a wanted child—born of passion and love? Did the teller put this story on paper because she couldn’t not tell it? I like to know that the heart works alongside or ahead of the writer’s brain.
In the end, these are the basic questions to ask of a piece of writing one reads, or a piece of writing one is in the act of creating: Do I want to keep turning the page? Do I care about these characters? Do I burn to know how the story turns out? If someone were recounting it, in a restaurant, one table over from where I sat, would I silence myself and my dinner companion so I could hear the storyteller’s voice?
When I was young, I suppose I harbored some of the old fantasies about a writer’s life: dreams of glamour and glory, fascinating friends, and maybe fame. What keeps me going now is a humbler goal, but maybe the most ambitious.
I want my characters and stories to enter your brain, as they occupied mine. I want to make you cry. I want to leave you sitting there, with your fork in midair, not even breathing for a moment, for fear of missing the next syllable.
(Part 1) | Part 2
By Joyce Maynard