Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Writer Gene

Me in my 'Birthday Suit'

When I was three, my mother bought me a new outfit to wear on my birthday. So I called it “My Birthday Suit” which of course got a lot of laughs that I didn’t quite understand. Those laughs are the reason I remember that it was a birthday outfit at all, instead of it just being some cheesy 70’s outfit my mother made me take a picture in.

Things like that always fascinated me, different meanings for words and phrases. I loved to find a new a different way to say things – double entendres still crack me up. Then again, with a name like, “Merry” I guess they should’ve seen that coming. I can still remember being baffled that other girls with my name spelled it the wrong way. Later, when I realized I was the odd one, I could actually hear the difference between someone else’s “Mary” and mine. People pronounce them the same way, for some reason I hear the spelling.

Erica Orloff often touches on topics of why writers write, why we’re wired to hear and see the things we do. And I wonder sometimes if it’s nature or nurture – I think it’s probably just in us. Another person without the odd writer gene might still have a name like mine and not feel the need to use a blog url like “Happycat”, or to think about it much at all. It’s just what it is.

I love to hear different writers talk about why they do what they do – their answers are often a bit different because just having the writer gene doesn’t mean we all share other outlooks and motivations. It just means the rest of our person found an outlet through words. Some writers swear that the very act of pursuing a career in writing means that there is ego there. Okay, maybe there’s ego everywhere in some degree or another. But there are some who say that they pursue writing because of their ego, their need for attention, their need to be heard and grab the spotlight – so they pursue it through writing because that’s where their surest talent lies.

For me, ego does come in, but not in the sense that I want a spotlight – when my writing veers toward flowery prose that go around in circles and add nothing to the STORY, I know I need to put the ego in check. It’s more about impressing the reader, or more often myself, and less about the objective. And it almost always means I’ve taken myself out of the character.

When I was in high school, I had a number of teachers who wanted to push me toward writing. I was still pretty set on art myself, but I enjoyed writing because I enjoyed the story. And it was safe, because no one knew about it. I wrote an assignment and handed it in to my English teacher and no one else had to know what was in there – but I loved it. I loved playing with the words and I loved the freedom of not having any real expectations on that part of me. Sure there were grades, but I wasn’t particularly worried about my English grade. Then one day my English teacher decided that one of my essays was so good that it should be shared, and she did. She read it to all of her classes, with my name attached, for the whole day.

I wanted to crawl under the foundation, I did. Teachers I didn’t even know were shouting praise at me in the hallways. And all of the sudden there was expectation. My friends hadn’t known I could write, and I didn’t know how to react to the praise. And I didn’t want it. I had a good gig going, compartmentalizing so that this thing was here and the rest of me was there and I wasn’t known by what I did... but more than that, I didn’t want the spotlight, I just wanted to write the story.

The teacher was a really nice and supportive one, and I’m sure she thought that would be a great confidence boost for me. But I wasn’t looking for one really. In my senior year, a different teacher convinced me to submit some of my short stories and poetry for the creative writing competition. I don’t know how exactly she talked me into it, I think it had something to do with the fact that you’d get feedback on the work and that it was a blind judging – so they wouldn’t know who I was. It didn’t occur to me that after they finished judging, they’d have to place the names with the winners. Or maybe it didn’t occur to me that I’d win anything. Really, I just liked the idea of my stories being read. I liked the idea that someone else might get lost in the world I put on paper, might get the same kind of jolt out of the flow of a phrase that I got out of all of the books I read.

Lucky for me, my art teacher couldn’t contain her excitement and she let slip that they were announcing the winners the next day. She didn’t tell me I’d won anything. She didn’t have to. It was all over her face. I ditched school the next day.

A few of the teachers were a little disappointed in me, I know. I just couldn’t do it, though. The thought of my name over the loudspeaker, and pictures and all that... It turned out that I’d placed in all three categories and took the overall prize. I couldn’t have done that. My name over the loudspeaker four times, oodles of praise, egads, I still cringe. I wish I could have explained it better at the time, apologized for missing the big hoopla they planned – maybe I should’ve tried writing it down.

I’m a little more mature now. I wouldn’t ditch out at the thought of accepting accolades, though I’d probably turn red. But it’s still mostly about the story. Not about being a writer, but the act of writing. And the publishing, the goal for me isn’t about anything except being read. It’s why I’m still pursuing traditional publishing instead of any other means. I could write for myself and never show it to a soul, but then it’s incomplete and wasted. I want it read. I want other people to get something out of the worlds I’ve created. There’s the ego, I guess.

How about you guys? Is it nature or nurture that made you a writer? And what’s the motivation? Is it about seeing your name on a book cover, or garnering great advances? Is your writing solely for you, or do you prefer to share it? And when did you know it was the path you needed to follow?


Gary Corby said...

If the stories are in your head then they have to come out, preferably read by lots of people who enjoy them.

Happy readers are the only true validation a book is worthwhile.

For me those are the only two motivations.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Gary,

I agree - it's the same for me. I would still write, whether I was trying to publish or not... though if I wasn't trying to publish, I probably wouldn't kill myself with revisions and editing and critiquing and all that. But the readers, having people read and enjoy the stories you create out of nothing - that's the prize, I think.

Thanks for stopping in.

Natasha Fondren said...

If I didn't need the money, I fear I'd be content to just make up the stories in my head and not put them on paper. I don't know. Maybe not.

I honestly have no idea why I write. Except maybe it's the best job I've ever had, and I'm in control of the outcome.

Merry Monteleone said...

Except maybe it's the best job I've ever had, and I'm in control of the outcome.

I'd say that's a pretty good reason to do anything! :-)

Not many people can say they love their job that much, regardless of what their income is.

Malanie said...

Hi Merry! Great post and thought provoking, thanks! You were an adorable child, BTW.

Aniket said...

It felt great to see you in your 'Bday suit' lol

Someone told me: Easiest way to become a millionare is to play poker in Vegas or write a book. Now, I dont know how to play poker, so that leaves..... :D

No seriously, I love the fame and limelight. Friends and family are always supportive but when a complete stranger reads your work and stops by to say he loved reading it. It works like ecstacy. Its the most wonderful feeling and thats what drives me.

Erica Orloff said...

Such a cutie!!!!

I think I was born a writer. Liked playing with words and telling stories. But I also had a father who pushed me to be a writer, and teachers who nurtured my talent. So I was lucky in that sense . . . . .

A terrible marriage in my twenties meant I didn't really find my voice for a bit--my real voice. But once I did, I haven't shut up. LOL!

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Malanie!

Good to see you! The blog url I had for you isn't working anymore - do you have a new one somewhere?

Hi Aniket,

Now, you're right, there is something riveting about having someone who doesn't know you at all say they like your writing...

That's probably the thing that thrilled me first about blogging... and then it was way more fun once I actually got to know all my bloggy friends.

Hi Erica,

Do me a favor and don't shut up anytime soon :-)

Colleen_Katana said...

I've never been very good at answering these questions. I really don't know why I write...why I enjoy it. And I've never tried to dissect it either.

I've always liked the spotlight and because I tend to write in first person, whether it's fiction or non, I love to read my stories aloud in spoken word type of nights. I love hearing the laughs in just the right spots...but I think that's the performer in me.

Writing was just something I always did. Something that I had a knack for which that in itself brought me joy.

Btw, I love that picture of you! The birthday suit thing is hysterical!

jjdebenedictis said...

Squee! I got the book today, Merry! Many, many thankies and huggles!

(1) Is it nature or nurture that made you a writer? (2) And what’s the motivation? Is it about seeing your name on a book cover, or garnering great advances? (3) Is your writing solely for you, or do you prefer to share it? (4) And when did you know it was the path you needed to follow?

I...honestly can't answer most of these.

(1) I've always read, but I started writing in a haphazard way with many years-long breaks. I'm not driven, but--in a spontaneous fashion--I keep writing things.

(2) I don't have much motivation beyond thinking I don't suck and should maybe do something about that.

(3) I'm intensely private about my drafts, but I'm intent on putting the good stuff out into the world.

(4) I got serious about it a few years ago. I still don't know that this is the path I have to follow; I just am--in a dedicated fashion--following it. It could all prove to be a fool's errand, but I don't care.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Colleen!

Eh, I'm overanalytical about these things sometimes. I don't think it really matters why you write, unless it's important to keep you motivated... I just like to see what pushes other people in their writing... because I'm nosy :-)

Hi JJ,

Yay!!! You got it!!! Excuse the dog ears here and there, I'll do that with my own books if I've misplaced the bookmark.

"I got serious about it a few years ago. I still don't know that this is the path I have to follow; I just am--in a dedicated fashion--following it. It could all prove to be a fool's errand, but I don't care."

I don't think it's a fool's errand at all - besides, you've only been serious about it for a few years and you're farther than a lot of us are after a decade or more.

Writing's an odd thing. Everyone's path is a little different and there's no real set order of how to get there... I think the biggest attribute is tenacity (but I might just be making myself feel better :-)