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To Be the Writer

By Patrick Kirkland · April 20, 2011

And can you by no drift of conference

Get from him why he puts on this confusion,

Grating so harshly all his days of quiet

With turbulence and dangerous lunacy?

  • The King, Hamlet, Act 3 Sc 1

The words come, but they’re slow and meticulous. Not that methodical rhythm that I sometimes feel when a great idea approaches. The truth is that on this particular morning of storytelling, I’m not inspired, but that’s really not the point. I told myself I would be here, day after day. That I’d stick to my schedule and that my first goal is simply to fill up the bare page with words until it’s time for me to stop. The Point is that – outside of sitting here, pouring out my words day after day and stringing them into some sort of meaningful train of thought – there’s nothing else I can do in this world to make me happy. Damn it, as much as I sometimes hate to admit it, I’m a writer. So I spend my hours, seemingly, just as Hamlet. Quiet. Angry. And usually, completely, undeniably mad.

I once had an acting instructor that looked our entire class of eager young thespians in the eye and told us, “If you can do anything else in this world, do it.” So I did. And here I sit, day after day in front of a keyboard, sometimes wanting to bang my head against the wall so it hard it cracks my skull. I really never even planned on writing. It wasn’t even my intention to become a writer. I wanted to be on the screen, not writing for it.

I spent hours rehearsing scene after scene, channeling my inner DeNiro and “becoming the character.” Before college, I mapped out careers from Carnegie Mellon, Tisch, and Emerson.  My first semester (at none of those schools, mind you), I spent in black leggings, perfecting my Alexander Technique of rolling around on my back while taking deep breaths. I studied and mastered performing monologues, brought the house down during our production of Tommy, and played Juror 12 twice, each time creating two completely different characters, even though I was speaking the same lines.  My future, I thought, would be as a real ACTOR. I’d study in New York City. I’d wait tables. I’d work nights, auditioning every chance I got. It wasn’t until my acting professor had us write and perform our own monologues that I got a taste of dialogue.

So how did the dream end? In the middle of the NYU campus, auditioning for a panel of judges. After weeks of preparing, it took me thirty seconds to butcher a monologue from Othello. Halfway through, the judges stopped me, and said the words that every actor hears at some point: “Thank you very much.” Translation: You’re done. We don’t want you.

Knowing defeat, I walked to the Astor Place Starbucks, ordered myself a mocha, and decided it was time to hang up my leggings.

So I went back home and wrote a play. And six months after that, I wrote another one. And six months after that, I was a reader in Los Angeles. And after that? I went to advertising school, and began learning how to become a graphic designer.

Left turn? Sure, are any of us different? It’s common practice for graduate schools to turn away young artists until their late 20s or 30s. Why? Because they want people who have a “few years under their belt.” They want people who have taken that left turn, and have come back to their true path. They want people who are done with the BS of growing up, and are ready to pursue their chosen path.

You call yourself a writer? To say it out loud in public requires a certain amount of – for lack of a better word – balls. Every time you say it, you already know the next question: “Oh”, they say. “Anything I’ve read?” The answer no is a sign of failure. The answer yes requires a bit of explanation. But either one feels like a bit of proof that you’re not really a writer, you just play one in your spare time. Maybe you tell people you’re a bartender. Maybe you tell them you’re “in school.” Or maybe you’re an “Executive Assistant.” (Sounds fancy, right? Successful. Something you can say to your mother and feel okay.)

Do you call Chuck Palahniuk a diesel mechanic? Does Aaron Sorkin say he’s a bartender? And would John Grisham still tell his parents’ friends that he’s a lawyer? There’s no way in hell I tell people I’m a graphic designer. (For the record, I very quickly realized that was a bad decision.)

What is it about the label that makes us run in the other direction? I think it’s a couple of things. For one, there’s no real public image of a “writer.” You might think of the New York hermit that sits alone in his apartment underneath stacks of filled pages. Or maybe you think of the man with the Moleskin sitting at the part, opposite a glass of whiskey? Or the college professor who writes on the side, but even then, he’s labeled as a “professor,” not as a “writer.” Or does the image of an unemployed dreamer occupy every space of the word? It’s a label that’s an unknown. Saying “lawyer” or “doctor” answers every question, but the word “writer” only opens up room for more.

But being a writer also means making an active commitment, and, let’s face it, writers just aren’t good at that. We know that becoming a working writer requires not hours, not days, not months, but years of practice. Yes, you can bang out a screenplay in a matter of days, but how good will it be, really? You can write a poem in mere seconds, but to the same standards as Robert Frost’s A Road Not Taken? And while many of us haven’t even tried, the simple thought of writing 300-400 pages of a novel is the equivalent of building the Titanic – a massive, time consuming, meticulous project that is sure to fail at the end.

The simple truth of it comes down to one question, that can’t be answered by the practical advice of law school, med school, charts, graphs, or any other type of training that sane people do: what if I fail?

For true writers, the answer is not important. Because writing is not a choice. It’s a calling. George Orwell put it best: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Writing is not a career, a profession, or a label. It’s the other side of us – the true us. That piece that our characters and ideas revel in is that same piece that those in our real lives don’t get to have. No one in the real world can get 100% of us. Not our jobs, not our friends, not our husbands and wives. To be a writer is not just to write, but to need it, as it needs you. To feel incomplete without that process. To feel like you don’t really matter until you put your idea on paper, because only then does the real you see the light of day. It’s alive.

Little did I know when I wrote my first play that I was walking down a path that may be the most treacherous of them all. I believe that everyone has the ability to write, but to make a living off of it? To make our mark on this Earth as a “writer”? There are only a handful, and all of us, every single one of us, is f*&^*$ crazy for doing it.

To call yourself a writer, you have to be able to put yourself out there. You have to expose yourself. As Walter Smith said, you have to “open a vein.” But once we do, there’s no stopping us.

I’m going to tell you the same thing that my acting teacher told me: If there’s anything else in this world you can do, do it. Don’t be a writer just because you can. Don’t give yourself the title just because you’ve got nothing better to do. If this isn’t the journey you want to take in life, then don’t take it. Don’t even try. Go back to school and become a lawyer, a doctor. Be a professional waiter, or be the best assistant you can be. If you don’t really need it – if you don’t really love it – being a writer’s just not worth it.

If the thought of never weaving a tale makes you sick to your inner soul, then make the commitment to call yourself what you really are. This path is hardwired. There’s no denying it. There’s no turning away from it. There’s no testing it out or just acting like it. Writers succeed because they pour their blood, sweat, and souls into it. Because they cut and dig through themselves, into the raw emotion and anger and guilt and sadness and humor and pain and love and write it all down for all the world to see. Then they lay themselves bare, and wait for the world’s reactions.

So are you, or are you not?  To be or not to be?  That is the question.