What Writers Do

Contributed by Laura McCune-Poplin

Since I’m not interesting enough to write memoir, and not scholarly enough to write non-fiction, I’ve staked my claim in the fictional world, where any daydream I have can take root if I simply put in enough effort.

Until I was twenty, I’d never written more than a handful of pages, which I would staple together and pronounce a short story. I love short stories. The best are carefully constructed masterpieces, more complex in their brevity than an epic novel with its thousand pages. I love the challenge of constructing a narrative with precision craft and limitation. And I especially love the somewhat democratic process of the un-agented and unsolicited literary magazine submission.  All of my successful publication stories have been short ones.

But my real love is the novel. I would never claim that characters in short fiction are not as round as their longer-winded cousins, but I am a selfish writer. I want to spend as much time with my characters as possible. They become as real to me as my upstairs neighbor, or my twenty-fourth cousin or even a second self. My characters live the lives I’ve never dared. They can risk everything or nothing (a risk in and of itself) and I get to sit back and watch the world work on them without fear or consequence. Because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that characters have minds of their own, and the most cantankerous will refuse to comply with any plot outline. Through my characters I can travel to places I’m too scared to go on my own. Because my characters will not abandon me. I carry them with me, like the memories of real-life loved ones I’ve left behind but refuse to part with. A writer is never lonely.

What a writer is, however, is persistent. I honestly believe anyone can become a writer. Yes, talent varies. Yes, some vocabularies are more impressive than others. But I’ve seen the most skilled wordsmiths wither and die simply because they would not write. Writers need motivation and dedication as much as they need imagination. Writers have to tame their characters the way Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince tamed his fox, with time and attention and ritual. Our characters desperately need our rituals, because it’s the mind games we play with ourselves that puts pen to paper. Writers write. It’s not more complicated or pretentious than that.