AN AWFUL, AMAZING, AND GRATIFYING PRIVILEGE
by Cynthia A. Graham
As writers I’m sure you’ve all been told by someone, “Someday I’m going to write a book.” I was once at a writer’s conference where a woman declared she had decided to write a book to pay for her child’s college tuition. It is nigh on impossible to explain to a non-writer how difficult writing is. They do not understand the extreme frustration of writer’s block, where it feels like you are being crushed beneath the weight of a story that will just not tell itself.
Conversely, they can’t feel the elation of those days when the words gush like a waterfall onto the page and you can exclaim, “the thing has legs!” It is a great understatement to say that writers are misunderstood. We are judged by an income that cannot begin to compensate for the hours, the blood, and the agony of what the reader holds in their hand. Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing” and only writers can understand how true this is. Writers write, not for the glory, but because they have to write. There is no other way for them to process the world. To non-writers this makes no sense and writers are, indeed, a difficult organism to define.
My definition is very basic. A writer is a storyteller who writes things down.
In ancient times, storytellers were esteemed and revered for the knowledge and wisdom they possessed. Oral tradition was the way history, beliefs, proverbs, legends, and practical knowledge were passed along. Ancient man told stories because stories helped them to understand the world. And story is still necessary to teach human beings their place in the universe. Stories are necessary because lives are not made up of abstract dates and events, but experiences, achievements, and accomplishments. Without the recognition of the human person we become labels, objects, and things. As writers, we have a solemn vocation – the privilege of giving a voice to characters – characters that our readers fall in love with, characters that they care about and identify with, characters that help them gain a different perspective. We are responsible for humanizing these characters, and in turn helping the reader look at the world through a different set of eyes — and we are charged with the task of creating understanding and empathy. In fact our writing can bring hope to the hopeless, solace to the broken-hearted, enlightenment, and enrichment.
We are all unique in our experiences, in our family history, in our cultural traditions, and in the way we look at the world. Our uniqueness is what gives us our own voice. As a writer you must first ask yourself: What do I want to say? What do I want to tell my reader? Never forget that it is your story that you want to tell. Virginia Woolf once said, “Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.” Find your own voice. Don’t try and imitate other writers regardless of how much you admire them. The world does not need another (insert name here). I wrote Beneath Still Waters because I felt like there had been enough soldier stories about heroism and I wanted to give a voice to those who came home and never fully put the demons of war behind them. I wrote Beulah’s House of Prayer because so much of the dust bowl mystique inspired by John Steinbeck was wrong. I wanted to tell the story of the experiences of the vast majority of Oklahomans, those who stayed home.
When Ernest Hemingway came onto the scene he was a revelation because he wrote in concise sentences. In fact, William Faulkner criticized him saying, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” And yet Hemingway’s style endured and he inspired many. I’m not saying any of us will be the next Ernest Hemingway, but I would encourage you, in Hemingway’s own words to “write the truest sentence you know.” It is your story. Say it I n the manner you want to say it. For me, writing is the equivalent to a bloodletting. It is hard, it is frustrating, it is, at times, agonizing, but we all know that it is something we are compelled to do. It is the most awful, amazing, and gratifying privilege I can imagine.
Cynthia A. Graham is the winner of several writing awards, including a Gold IPPY, and two Midwest Book Awards. Her short stories have appeared in both university and national literary publications. She is the author of three works of historical mystery: Beneath Still Waters, Behind Every Door, and the forthcoming Between the Lies (due out in March, 2018). In addition, her novel Beulah’s House of Prayer was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award.