Yesterday I met a young woman who told me her dream is to write a book. She said she has never taken any writing courses, and she has no writing experience. She said she has no idea how to start writing. She feels her dream is unattainable.
Later in the evening, my mind returned to our conversation. I thought back to the time when I first turned to writing. I was 24, newly-married and living far away from my family. I wanted everyone to feel part of my adventures, and so I wrote letters. Lots and lots of them. I tried to write as expressively as I could, and in the process, I built up my vocabulary and I learned to trim my sentences for clarity.
A few years later, a friend showed one of my letters to Joe Nash, a legendary editor at “The Mexico City News”. Before the internet, the paper was the largest English language daily in Latin America. Joe invited me to be the correspondent for Yucatan – a unique learning experience that lasted 12 years. People read my column and some of them asked me to write for their publications – travel articles mostly. I did make sporadic attempts at structuring a longer piece but I never got far.
Then one January night in 2007, I woke up with an idea that would not leave me alone – I wanted to write something “long”. Literary terms like: “genre”, “point of view”, “the story arch” or “the hero’s journey” meant nothing to me. But I sat down at the computer and began. I typed my first paragraph:
“I’ve often wondered what would happen if we could recognize pivotal times in our personal journeys – the “forks in the road” that present themselves. Do we ever see them coming? Does a vague premonition warn us that certain decisions are destined to truly change our path? If we could anticipate these critical junctions, would we have the nerve to follow through? Thirty-plus years ago, I surely did not sense that my life was about to veer radically off course. I had no idea what was in store for me for the rest of my days. I was caught completely unawares… and I went headlong through the door that opened to me…”
And that was it – I followed my own advice – I went headlong through the door that opened to me. Since that night, four books, many short stories and umpteen blog posts have been composed, letter by letter, on my trusty HP.
I can’t fully explain why I need to write, but I can describe how I write.
No mincing of words here – determination is essential. When I want to write, I sit in the chair with my fingers on the keyboard – this is the only way I can get going. I get up to drink water or to stretch a bit – but I stay in place until I finish – or am forced to leave.
Even when not writing, my thoughts are always wandering through the years and my life experiences – to such an extent that it sometimes feels as though I’m reliving them. When I write, I draw on those experiences and feelings.
I watch people – how they move and how emotions show on their faces. This helps me portray my characters.
My head is always full of ideas, memories, and plans. This helps me to spin plots, to create characters and find the words to develop them.
After pondering my afternoon’s encounter – this is what I wish l had said to that young woman:
NEVER give up on your dream. The time to start your book might not be here yet, but you will absolutely know when it has arrived. Meanwhile, you need to practice. Start a journal and write something every day, even if it is just a few lines. Read as much as you can, and try to figure out how authors craft their sentences. You could benefit from some creative writing workshops and learn a lot at book presentations. Watch Ted Talks by authors (Anne Lamott has an amazing one)
Be an observer – watch how an old man trudges up a hill, and how a little girl scampers down the front steps. You need to remember how a kiss tastes, and how it sounds when your mother calls your name. Fill your word bank so that you have a healthy balance – just in case you need to withdraw some – to describe the smell of the rain, or the sound of your boots crunching in the snow. Little by little, you will learn to put your thoughts and emotions into words, and then write those words down for others.
That’s what a writer does – and you can do it too.