Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Joy (and Pain) of Writing

I've wanted to be a writer ever since I picked up my first Kurt Vonnegut novel sometime in the late eighties. (It was probably Cat's Cradle.) Since then, I've put together a few things, been published in a couple magazines, populated this blog, and published some original essays professionally online. But I've never really put in the writing time necessary to really call myself a "writer."

I enjoy writing, and I have enjoyed writing: the sense of accomplishment, the pride of creating something that didn't before exist. But it has always been a small, passing joy, like winning a soccer game or getting a bingo in Scrabble. And I think it's because that joy of writing was so fleeting that it hasn't really instilled in me that drive to really be a writer.

This year (thanks to Twitter), I discovered NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. I've really started putting in the time writing down one of the stories that has been floating around in my mind for probably a decade. And tonight, something unexpected and wonderful happened.

I felt like a writer.

In the past, my writings have dwelled mainly in the realm of essays and poems. This stab at NaNoWriMo is my first real attempt at character development. Tonight, one character (Maria) asked another character (Billy) a simple question: "Who is your favorite artist?" While crafting Billy's answer, I felt what I can only imagine is the emotion that other writers feel that compels them to write, to keep at it, pushing out chapter after chapter and story after story, even if they never get published.

Billy hadn't really considered who his favorite artist was until Maria had asked. He realized that he had always enjoyed leafing through the sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer. Maria brought up the Mona Lisa, and Billy said that he never really got much out of the Mona Lisa. That he much more preferred to examine the artists' sketches that led up to the finished work.

(In first-draft form:)

"What I really like about the sketches is that they're both art and works-in-progress. Like, when you look at the Mona Lisa, you know that it's done. It'll never be anything but the Mona Lisa. But those sketches -- the pen and pencil drawings -- show the artist working partway through both the artistic and technical aspects of a composition, but they aren't finished yet. They're on the page, but they aren't fully formed. What starts as a sketch of a woman could be a gypsy dancing, or a queen, or a witch. They could be --"
   "They could be anything," Maria finished.
   "Right! Exactly! They could be --" he stopped then. His eyes lit up and he smiled, saying -- more to himself than to Maria -- "They could be anything."

And that was when I felt it. It was like fatherhood: I was guiding this boy whom I had created through a simple path of self-discovery. I was proud. Not only had I watched this surrogate "son" grow as a person, I had made it happen. And beyond that, I had created the perfect symbol for what this character would be like: more interested in the process and challenge of creation than the finished product.

And it was also sad, because I had also foreshadowed Billy's fate. I had identified him with -- and as -- a sketch instead of a finished piece. I had made him, and would make him, an unfinished painting.

It was like fatherhood. It was like love.

And now I have to get back to it. because I'm terribly behind on my NaNoWriMo word count.