Who You Are and Who You Ain't

By James NFrey

I thank Larry Brooks for giving me the opportunity to share this. I have something I think is important to tell you about writing and the writing life -- about who you and I really are, and what our mission in life really is.

Did you notice, when you told your mother or father, sister, brother, or friend that you wanted to be a writer, the shocked, hurt, bewildered expression on their faces? Spouses, upon hearing the news, often get ill or take to the bottle. Some start packing.

There are a lot of great quotes from famous writers on writing that tell of the struggle writers go through. Supposedly Hemingway said that to be a writer all you have to do is "go into your room, sit in front of your typewriter...and stare at a blank page until blood comes out of your forehead."

We all know what it feels like to have blood trickling down our forehead. We all know there are days when the words will not flow from our brain to our fingertips, days when the most used key on the keyboard is the delete key, days when you think your mother was right -- you should have taken the Post Office exam. We all know days when we say, what the hell am I doing bleeding from my forehead when I could be...playing golf...or fishing...or playing frisbee with my dog.

Of course writers don't play golf or go fishing or play frisbee with the dog. Few writers even have dogs. Who the hell has time for dogs? Writers don't go out to a lot of movies, or baseball games, or picnics in the park. Writers don't do much of anything but write, think about writing, or talk about writing. We go into our little rooms, turn on our music, and turn on our machines and stare at the screen until blood comes out of our foreheads. That's the writing life. Not all that glamorous or glorious, is it? Taken a day at a time.

And then after countless hours of agony writing, rewriting, workshopping, editing, getting critiques, reading books on craft - some of which are damn good - we try to get published and we find that bleeding from the forehead wasn't all that bad. Now we're getting banged on the forehead with rejection slips that hurt more than getting hit with a sledgehammer.

Anybody ever tell you your work was not right for their list? What the hell that does that mean? They have too many critically acclaimed bestsellers on their list? How about they tell you it's beautifully written...they loved your characters...you obviously have a lot of talent and a great future, but, gee, it's just not right for our list...we're not taking on any new clients at this time. Then why the hell did they say yes to your query letter?

We try to find out what's wrong, so we go back to book doctors and writing workshops and hear that our work is boring or not right for the market, old- fashioned or too avant-garde, doesn't fit the genre, or is too derivative, and we go back to our room and bleed some rewrite out of our foreheads.

These book doctors charge like hell -- there go the kid's braces -- and so we try agents who charge reading fees to finance their trips to the French Riviera.

And then the big day comes and you finally get an agent who seems to really like your stuff. And after it makes the rounds to a couple dozen houses, you hear that the editor loved it, but the pub board said it wasn't right for their list, that you write beautifully, they loved your characters, but your book, well, is not quite right for their list.... At least, your writer friends tell you, you aren't still getting printed rejection slips made out to "Dear Author."

You have by now disabused yourself of the notion that there is an editor waiting in a book-lined office to shepherd your book through the process of getting you critical acclaim and your rightful place on the New York Times bestseller list.

It may happen some day, but in the meantime you've found out the first big truth of the writing game -- the publishing industry treats writers like shit on their shoes.

The price you pay for being a writer is high. Your personal life goes to hell. Your spouse and loved ones grow weary of being ignored, of having you care more for your characters and their travails than you do for your own family, friends and their travails. You remember every holiday, right? Okay, you come to the table with blood on your forehead, but you give them several hours every damn year, so they should shut up.

Some years ago there was an elaborate study of what makes for a successful writer - I.Q.? Hardly. Some of the best writers are not really all that bright.

Education? Hemingway, Capote, Shakespeare, and a host of rich and famous authors had only a high school education or less.

Talent? Apparently not: Hemingway said he had to rewrite each page fifty times. So what it is it? It's the amount of blood that comes out of the forehead - the successful writers were writers who wrote and wrote and wrote.

When Somerset Maugham, at the time the biggest bestselling author in the world, was asked did he write on a schedule or when inspiration moved him. He said, when inspiration moved him. What a shock, eh? Luckily, he said, inspiration moved him every morning when he sat down to write at 5 a.m.

Okay, after we write and write and write, and bleed and bleed and bleed a lot, then comes wealth and glory, right? Well, sort of. If you're lucky, and you keep trying like hell, you get published. A sexy cover and everything. You think you've got it made. Think again.

Now, thank God, you're published and you're not being ignored, but now you're being insulted by critics, rejected by the public, sued, jailed, flogged, pilloried, hanged, or burned at the stake.

In fact, writers are the most persecuted minority in the history of the world. There are countless fiction writers, reporters, poets, bloggers, screen writers being tortured at this very moment in China, Tibet, in the Muslim world. This year, Iranian-American Roxana Seberi was sentenced to six years in an Iranian hell where she'll likely be raped, sodomized, whipped, beaten, and starved. Her crime? She sought to tell the truth. That's what writers do; that's why we're prosecuted.

Thank God we live in a country where all they do to writers is sue us, get us fired from faculty jobs, deny us tenure, ruin our reputation, and have us harassed by the IRS. Every writer's motto is: "Writing is a bitch, and then you die."

Now you know why when you told your mother you wanted to be a writer, she cried.

You may find yourself asking why you ever wanted to be a writer. One theory is, you're doing penance for the sins of your last life. Another theory is that you are clinically insane, schizoid or bipolar. Or maybe you just have some kind of complex.

Most writers are alcoholic. Are you?

Or, maybe you have been called by God. In our heart of hearts, most of us think that's the case.

Most writers I know are writers because they have an inner fire that will burn them up if they don't write. To be a writer is to live passionately. We live by our own inner fire. To be a writer you must take a leap of faith. Writing is not a job, not a profession: writing is a way of being. You live word by word, sentence by sentence, image by image, sitting in a darkened room, alone with your dreams and your fire, creating whole worlds.

We sometimes get so wrapped up in the business side of our profession that we forget who we are. We forget our existential identity.

You see, every writer has made a leap of faith. When we took the leap we became someone else altogether. At some point in your life, you stopped saying "I'm going to be a writer," and started saying "I am a writer." The implications of this change are enormous. You have taken yourself out of the world of the every day. You have landed on a strange new shore and have burned your boats. You now see life as your laboratory and what counts is getting the book finished.

As William Faulkner said: "Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency... to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate. The Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies."

Now you are in the dark woods of creativity, having given yourself over to servitude to your own muse. Life itself is your subject, and your art is your only cause and suddenly you feel yourself looking at the world through a lens that reveals the secrets of human beings and nature.

You are becoming what the Greeks called a seer; the Navaho, a medicine man; the ancient Israelites, a prophet.

Much of the ill treatment writers receive is because of fear that as a writer, you have a third eye, that you can see reality with more clarity, but you can also see beneath the surface of everyday reality and into the nature of ultimate reality. And you know what? We can.

People who don't live in the world of their own imagination, who live in the mundane world of the everyday, fear this power. And the more you write and the longer you're at it, the more of your own fears you trample, and the more your third eye is open.

People in ancient times understood the power of words. They were in awe of the power of words. The scribes of ancient Egypt were the priesthood; they wielded both spiritual power and temporal power. Think of it... priests could see marks on a rock and change them into words. They could write on papyrus and other scribes could read it - miles apart, even centuries later. Reading and writing to those who could not perform these feats were magic.

Words come from breath as you speak and breath means life. John 1:1 says: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Words to ancient people had power. Witches and wizards cast spells with words. Hypnotists induce trances with word pictures. Priests bless with words. The God of Genesis called the universe into being with words.

People fear us because we can bewitch them. We can take them out of their everyday reality and make them, even against their will, dream the fictive dream.

Words sell products, create demand in the market place, promote politicians.

Fiction, my friend, is a teaching tool, teaching us about life. Romance novels teach us how to love. Mysteries teach us about justice. Adventure stories take us to new places; sci fi, to other worlds and other dimensions. It is by our stories that we truly live.

Christ taught by parables. These parables are stories, and these simple parables brought an end to the organized cruelty that was the Roman empire, by far the most powerful empire the world had ever seen.

When Secretary of War Stanton met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, at the end of the Civil War, he said, "Ah, so here is the woman who started it all...." And he meant it. Had there been no Uncle Tom's Cabin, there would not have been a Civil War.

The stories we've been told of the Dalai Lama have endeared us to him. This is a man who was kicked out of his country by the armies of a neighboring country, whose supporters were murdered and tortured by the thousands. These are pretty much the facts of the case. We love the Dalai Lama, who has not called for war or revenge. He's a man who says his religion is "kindness," and that's what he offers to the Chinese.

It was mighty odd to us that the Dalai Lama's recent calls for autonomy sent thousands of Chinese students around the world -including those living in Paris and New York -, protesting against the Dalai Lama. The West was shocked. How could these students be protesting a living saint?

Ah...you see the Chinese heard another Dalai Lama story. In 1963 in China there was a movie released called "Serf" that was a megahit. The Tibetan serfs were shown as brutalized by the lamas, who forced them into slavery, and even burned boys alive as human sacrifices. In the film, the Chinese army liberated these oppressed people who were jubilant. How could the West back such an evil man as the Dalai Lama?

The power of stories is without limit. As writers, we create stories that show people how to live, how to act, how to feel. Stories teach what it means to love and self-sacrifice for others. how a hero should act, and who we should love and embrace and who we should hate and kill. When we write stories we are doing what writers have been doing for countless millennia. We are, a story at a time, creating mores and ethical systems and shaping culture. This is why the romantic poet Percy Shelly said that poets and creative writers were the "unacknowledged legislators of the world."

Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, was a great man, a great thinker, and an entertaining writer. He said it puzzled him for years why a man will jump into rushing river to save the life of a stranger. After much study and reflection Campbell concluded that at that moment, the man realized that he and the man in the river were one, that all beings are connected, that we share a single creation....Sounds good, but I think in this case the great Joseph Campbell had it wrong.

At the moment of crisis, in the head of the ordinary man, the archetype of the hero put there by storytellers takes over, and an ordinary person becomes the hero and self-sacrifices, as a hero should.

Near where I live in California, in the '89 quake, the top level of a two-story freeway collapsed, crushing hundreds of cars. This freeway ran through "the hood," one of the most distressed, impoverished areas of Oakland where dozens of young men hang out selling drugs, getting drunk, shooting up, smoking dope, cleaning their automatic weapons, pimping whores...This freeway collapse was right above them and, when it happened, without hesitation they scrambled up on the freeway like ants. News reporters seeing this through their helicopter- mounted cameras described them as looters, but as usual the TV people got it wrong. Nothing got looted, not a single wallet or watch went missing. Most of the people in the cars were white suburbanites on the way home to watch the World Series that was starting that night.

These young black men had instantly taken on the mantle of the hero and risked their lives on a teetering hunk of concrete. They saved many lives - because they had surrendered to the archetype of the hero buried in their psyches, put there by storytellers.

At Chernobyl, in 1986, young men who had been told all their lives there is no god, no afterlife, picked up pieces of metal and ran at the nuclear fire that threatened their country, even the world, knowing that they would die a horrible death soon after these actions from radiation sickness. These men had surrendered to the archetype of the hero buried in their psyches put there by writers.

The pen, it's said, is mightier than the sword. A sword? Hell, it's far more powerful than an atom bomb.

The Aztecs had a story that their god Quetzalcoatl was coming back. They took Cortez to be him: believing this story caused them to lose their empire.

There was a legend in France in the middle ages that in a time of great crisis a young maid would lead them to victory over their enemies. When an ignorant peasant girl showed up saying dead saints were telling her to lead their armies to kick the English out of France, she was believed. Thousands flocked to her cause. She's now a saint herself, Joan of Arc.

The entire nation of Germany once believed a story that the Aryan race born of God had a special mission to rule the world. It took millions of lives and put countless cities in ruins to kill the belief in that story.

The entire nation of Japan once believed a story that the Japanese were a race born of God that had a special mission to rule all of Asia. Millions more lives were sacrificed to this.

Once, the Soviet Union told a story of how the masses would rise up and slaughter the evil of capitalism and usher in not just a new society, but a new mankind. Millions of people died in service of this story.

No wonder writers are feared.

If instead of becoming a writer you had joined the hare Krishna band, say, your family might be shocked. The bald head, the orange robes. But by becoming a writer, not only have you joined another faith, you're a member of the priesthood.

By mastering your craft, by bleeding through the forehead, you are gaining a sort of supernatural power, the power to create stories that cause people to enter into a kind of trance, to be in the story world that you have created, to think and feel things they never would have thought or felt in their ordinary life. You are creating stories that tell people how to live and how to believe. You can actually bring change to the world; you can give voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless. People with this kind of power are scary. It's no wonder your husband now has a girlfriend named Daisy or your wife, a boyfriend named Rock.

This, they say, is the information age. It is the writers, my brothers and sisters, who mold the information, who amplify it, who manipulate it, who form it into stories.

No matter your success in the commercial aspects of you craft, you are repaid for your agony. All the blood coming out of the forehead is worth it, because you can experience what all creative people - writers, artists, musicians - experience: the ecstasy of being a co-creator of the world.

So that, my fellow believers, is what your mission is and who you really are.


JamesNFrey Home