By Thornton Sully
The number is now six. I started keeping count after three.
That is the number of times over the years that the first words from someone, upon discovering I am a publisher and editor, are “I am not a writer, but …” and then the not-a-writer produces or informs me they have 300 pages of manuscript yellow-ing in the bottom drawer of their dresser or lurking behind their computer screen. You do not need the validation of an agent or publisher to assert that you are genuinely a writer, if you write.
So, take a deep breath, and answer truthfully. Are you a writer?
If you answered as I suspect you did, you’ll keep reading. Because the next question may help you make the transition from being writer to author —one whose words have been offered up in printed form to share with others.
Why do you write?
I have heard quite literally as many different answers as there are writers, ranging from the cliché (“Because I must.”) to something highly personal and profound:
“I write because I have a crush on words. Words make me fall in love (with people who send them to me, and with words themselves). It is a passionate, playful affair. Words are my paint box, the way I process beauty. Writing can turn any experience, however hard, into art. We grow emotionally by writing and reading, and often learn to forgive. Writing is redemptive.” —Laura Elizabeth
Or consider this:
“I’ve written for much of my post-second grade life, but now when I try to define the reason I write, I find the answer has been a moving target. […] I would have to admit that I write to remember, or perhaps more honestly, that I write to be remembered.” —Ben Angel
As a reader of Legacy Arts magazine, the chances are that you want to make sure your children and grandchildren remember not only who you are, but what is imperative for them to grasp in order to learn from your own experience navigating your life. Do you have questions that you regret never having asked your elders? Are they the same questions that someday your children may regret never having asked you? Answer before they ask. Committing yourself to documenting your life in the form of a memoir to them is like providing them with an instruction manual for life, that only you can author. It is the extreme act of love and caring.
To get started, if you haven’t already done so, I suggest you pick one small incident that has stayed with you, rather than trying to make a map of all your time on the planet. You memorized dates in the fifth grade, only to discover as you matured that the dates spoke only of chronology, but nothing of history: when you graduated, when you got married/divorced, fell in love for the umpteenth time, when you moved to Philly. These are statistics, the listing of numbers in a phone book.
What about you?
Your life is more than points on a graph. Begin anywhere. Your first efforts amount to pianotuning. Pick something innocuous, such as going to the pound and picking out a puppy, or something horrendous, like receiving your draft notice or the discovery of cancer. You will be tempted to create your story as something linear, chronological, but as you begin writing, you’ll quickly discover some episodes in your life carry more weight than others. Focus on these. Your children will want to know not only what you did with and in your life, but what you thought and felt along the way.
Recently I bellied up to a bar in Bohemia that smelled of Hemingway. The bartender, a somewhat evasive Honduran, confessed upon hearing I was a publisher that he kept a journal (after the gratuitous I’m not a writer, but …).
We bargained: an opinion on his first three pages in exchange for a rum and coke. I prepared myself, given the circumstances, to be under-whelmed. Instead, I discovered the most beautiful prose I had ever encountered. The first of almost 1,000 pages documenting an adventure and a truly impossible love story.
“What is this?”
“It’s about me and Emma. We walked across Africa together.” He told me more, much more. A love story that endured until it didn’t, but he could never forget her.
“What do you want to see happen with this?”
“I want a book out of it.”
“Of course.” Isn’t that what every writer tells me?
But he continued. “Just one book.”
“Yes. To give to Emma. So she will know I loved her.”
What finer motive can there be to writing your story than to present it to the ones you love to authenticate what you feel for them? Isn’t your life a novel, really? Not an aimless meandering, but something with purpose and value. You are the central character, and you have been faced with obstacles along the way. Did they beat you down? Did you overcome them? And most importantly, what did you learn that will help those who follow you to live fuller, more creative, productive, and satisfying lives? They can learn so much from you, but only if you tell them.
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Thornton Sully is an award-winning editor, publisher, writer, and founder and Editor-in-Chief of A Word with You Press. He can be contacted through Legacy Arts magazine.