Yesterday over at TheKillZone.com, James Scott Bell posted a blog about the moment one decides to become a writer. He included this provocative excerpt from Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel Martin Eden:
And then, in splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write. He would be one of the eyes through which the world saw, one of the ears through which it heard, one of the hearts through which it felt. He would write–everything–poetry and prose, fiction and description, and plays like Shakespeare. There was career and the way to win to Ruth. The men of literature were the world’s giants . . . Once the idea had germinated, it mastered him, and the return voyage to San Francisco was like a dream. He was drunken with unguessed power and felt that he could do anything . . . To write! The thought was fire in him. He would begin as soon as he got back . . . There were twenty-four hours in each day. He was invincible. He knew how to work, and the citadels would go down before him.
Pretty strong stuff. Jim went on to write that he himself could isolate the very day, the very moment in time when he made the decision. Like so many of his posts, it got me to thinking.
I write. I have novels out, one traditionally published and two self-published. I have some six or seven published short stories. I sweat over dialogue and narrative just the way Jim does, just the way Stephen King does, probably. I take pride in what I’ve written. I’ve been doing all this for many years.
And yet I never really decided I wanted to be a writer.
No warm wave of certainty ever washed over me, no hot bolt from the blue struck at my subconscious, not even a simple admission to myself that “I want to be a writer”, followed by a relentless pursuit of that goal.
Don’t get me wrong, now. I’ve done plenty of pursuing. As I said, I’ve done everything it takes to be a writer, and I guess I am one. Thing is, I never made the conscious decision to become one. It just…sort of happened.
It was all so gradual. Starting back in 1986 when I wrote an account of a bizarre trip I took to Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa, and then another account of an equally strange trip to Honduras the following year, I had absolutely not the slightest idea that twenty-five years later, I would have three novels and a short story collection published, with several more novels completed and ready to go.
I had no mentor at all during those years, no one to tell me about POV and passive voice and plot structure and dialogue tags and all the other components of the author’s catechism. So it was a very, very long learning curve for me. And I still haven’t reached the end of it.
I probably never will.
I’m still trying to decipher the code of getting readers to notice my novels, the code which appears to be well-known to a lot of authors I’ve seen on places like the Kindle Boards, authors who seem to accomplish it with very little effort. But I guess it’s all part of that long curve.
I think I have an aversion to goals. I mean, I’ve never really set goals for myself. How can I plan to achieve this or that level of success in, say, five or ten years when I don’t have any idea what opportunities or challenges will present themselves to me in those future years? Let’s say I set a goal for five years down the road, then in two years, I come to an unexpected fork in the road. The left fork takes me toward my goal, but the right fork takes me in a new, exciting direction away from my goal and toward a more appealing conclusion. If I were in dogged pursuit of my goal, I would take the left fork and plow ahead. But I know I would be forever haunted by not knowing what awaited me down that tantalizing right fork.
My whole life, I’ve always taken the right fork because I’ve operated in a goal-free zone. I’ve done okay for myself, I think, and I have few, if any, major regrets. I’ve had several great careers and I now am neck-deep in my latest one, writing noir novels, while living in beautiful Key West. There’s no doubt in my mind that had I been hamstrung with goals, I would today have many regrets.
So I’m going to continue writing as long as I can, and maybe one day I’ll wake up and say, “Yikes! I want to be a writer!”