What is it to be Writer?

Earlier this week I published an anthology of short stories titled Declaration: Stories. I have a story in the collection and served as Editor-in-chief. <shameless self-promotion>It’s available for $9.95 on Amazon.com or Createspace.com</shameless self-promotion>. What follows is the introduction I wrote for the collection. I thought you might be interested.

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Declaration cover photoWhat is it to be a writer?

Speaking for myself, I can answer the question this way: You know the old philosophical question “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” We writers often feel we are the trees falling alone in the forest. I don’t say this to make you feel sorry for us – we like being alone making noise with our imaginations. But at a certain point we do want you to hear.

Then the question becomes one of timing: when is the right time to let the world hear the sounds we’re making? We don’t want to invite you too soon, for fear you may not appreciate the quality of the sound. We will invite you to hear, but only if you understand that we are really never fully satisfied with the sound we’ve made. To be sure, there are parts of it that are OK, but we’re under no illusion that what we’re showing you is our best. Our next effort will be our best. Always the next. We need you to understand that.

One of my favorite writers, Andre Dubus, once described the experience of writers this way:

Unless they live in a community of writers, like at a graduate school, they don’t have friends who really understand what they are doing. They don’t get published. They work and of course, don’t get money for it. There is no one to set the alarm clock for. There is no one who cares whether they get there to work, no one who can threaten them with firing or reward them with money, and you put all that on one poor young man or woman’s back, and it takes an awful lot of courage, because it comes down to that person believing in him or herself and saying, I will do it. While having a job that supports me. And you finally do publish in something as lovely as Tendril or Ploughshares, for example, and you call your mother or father and tell them, and they say, ‘What’s that?’ I think that is why young writers can be persuaded so easily to change things to be in The New Yorker. Not for the goddamn money. What’s three thousand dollars going to do? You can’t live in Mexico on it and write. Not for long anyway. Won’t change your life. I think they do it because it takes care of those blank faces when you say, ‘Yes, I’ve published,’ and they say, ‘Where?’ and you say, The New Yorker, and they say, ‘Ooh! You must be real!’

That’s it: we love what we do. We do it for the love of it. But we spend a lot of time doing it, we take a lot of time away from our families to do it, and sometimes we’re cranky about it. So at some point we want to show you that we’re making progress. We want to prove that we’re real. We want to prove it to you. We want to prove it to ourselves.

The stories included here all emerged during the Fall quarter of 2012 when these eleven writers came together to begin the program for the Certificate in Literary Fiction at the University of Washington under the guidance of our instructor, Lyn Coffin. At the start of the quarter, Lyn asked us to introduce ourselves to each other and, among other things, to explain why we had come. “I used to write, I don’t anymore. I want to write again,” we said to each other. “I have always written, but I have never called myself a writer,” we said. “I have been writing stories since I was a child, but I have never shared that part of myself with the world,” we said.

Then Lyn told us to “make the way by going.” She said, “write.” And so we wrote. We shared, we discussed, we questioned, we work-shopped each other’s work. We saw that we already were writers; we started as good writers, we learned from each other, we got better.

Consider the power of words. Reality is constructed on the backs of precise phrases: “With this ring, I thee wed”; “I claim this land in the name of the king”; “I [your name here] do solemnly swear”; “Dibs on the last cookie”; “Shotgun!” Our world is because our words make it so.

In these stories are worlds that did not exist before these writers imagined them. In these stories are people and events and experiences and thoughts and feelings that cannot be denied or undone. They are real because these real writers gathered words to make them so.

Here are eleven real stories by eleven real writers.

They don’t need me to say that, the work declares it. If we are trees in the forest, these stories are the sounds we have made. We want you to hear them.

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Tacos Are Not Writing

Sometimes I drive around eating tacos from drive-up windows and convince myself that I am writing by thinking about what I will write when I am done with my tacos and I go back home and sit at my desk again. But I’m just fooling myself. Tacos are not writing. Tacos are delicious. But tacos are tacos, thinking is thinking. Only writing is writing.