I don’t know that becoming a writer was a choice, initially. I just was a writer. I remember the first time I read a book by myself. The book was called Tommy’s Train. I read it aloud to my brother in my grandmother’s musty basement in Downriver Detroit. I couldn’t have been older than three or four, but I got the feeling I would later come to recognize as a story developing: What’s my train story? I was about to take my first train ride, from Detroit to Kansas City. I could imagine my family on the train although it hadn’t happened yet. That was probably the first time I realized that you could have a story without having been there. Aha! Fiction. I also remember writing poems on a regular basis as early as nine years old, and I made a commitment to daily writing when I was eleven or twelve, in the seventh grade. So becoming a writer happened very early for me.
Staying a writer is something I do every day (or night) when I sit down to write. It’s not too hard for me to get myself to the table—even when it doesn’t go well, I like the mess and puzzle of writing. Developing my skills as a writer was and is largely a matter of reading books that amaze me, and figuring out how they amaze me. There’s an actual physical sensation I get when I read something that will change me forever; it’s like a shrinking feeling in my lungs that spreads to my upper back. It sounds corny, but it feels a little like wings sprouting. Later, when I am writing, and a good impulse comes to me, I get the same feeling. Then, if I’m lucky, my brain and fingers will remember that how I’ve learned from other writers and modify it to suit my purposes.
|Now that's a big crazy haystack|
Generally, this means my notebooks and task manager are jammed with hundreds of projects in various stages of development. It’s a rare day if I don’t have a “jottable” idea. (Then, maybe there are no bad story ideas and it’s all in the execution.) My main obstacle is the feeling of dejection I get when I realize I’m not going to live forever, and I can’t write all the time—I have to go to the dentist, do dishes, chop wood. I try to stick with a single project through the flow, to trust that I can always come back to a good idea later. I will sometimes write a note to myself: “If it’s a good idea now, it will probably be a good one six months from now, too.” Other times, I have to follow my impulse, and I just know it. Aimee Bender gave me some lovely advice once, which was to follow the pleasure in writing. That advice has served me very well because it goes perfectly with the only rule that always works for me, which is “just keep writing.”