Shaun Levin

What Is a Writer?

In Writing on November 3, 2020 at 4:05 pm

What, then, she says, is a writer?

He likes to think he takes the generous approach and tells her a writer is someone who writes, who puts pen to paper and keeps doing it regularly. The truth is he’s surprised by her question, as if he’d never considered it, never been asked. The more common questions are: Can anyone be a writer? Have we all got a book in us? Can writing be taught?

A writer, overwhelmed with the stuff in their head, reverts to the page to vent, as in: to let off steam, as in: to decompress, as in: to let out what has been bubbling up inside (for generations). A writer needs the page in order to think deeply. Joan Didion said something about writing in order to know what she’s thinking. And Flannery O’Connor: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” A writer knows, or likes to think, that with writing will come sense. A writer knows there is no limit to stories.

A writer does their thinking on the page. A writer prefers (“is excited by,” would be more precise) is excited by details more than abstractions, stories more than actions, a rhyme every now and then, when we’re not sure what to… A writer is never satisfied. A writer wants more. A writer knows that after a story comes another story. (There’s no such thing as writer’s block.) What comes after a story? Another story. Who said that? Elie Wiesel? Sholem Aleichem? He saw it once in a book of Jewish storytelling.

A writer is saved by words, by other writers, by the stories of other writers, but more than the stories, by the sentences themselves, the voices of other writers, even just one writer. If you have one writer you keep returning to because they save you, you’re a writer. A writer delights in their own performance on the page, is surprised by it. What? I wrote that? Impossible! A writer, like a good cook, knows when their food is delicious, because it is delicious to them, and also knows that what they’ve cooked up is not entirely of their making. Writers know there is some kind of organising principle in the universe, and we work to try and move with it, make sense of it, and offer up glimpses of it on the page.

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