May 3, 2010

The Curse of the Writer

There are many pros and cons about being a writer, but one of the challenges is that it takes you over like the aliens in the movie The Puppet Masters (based on the Robert Heinlein novel by the same name).

The movie starts innocently enough. Something strange lands in rural Iowa, and special agents go to investigate. But then the locals are being taken over by sluglike aliens, the Puppet Masters, who insert their tentacles into and control over people’s minds. The aliens also infiltrate the intelligence organization, and it looks like they’re going to take over earth.

The main character, an intelligence agent named Sam, sacrifices himself. He becomes possessed by an alien so that the agency can understand it. While under its control, he is aware of himself but is totally committed to the aliens’ cause. After the creature is removed, his mind is still warped by the possession.

Writing is like that. The more you write, the more you commit yourself to the writer’s life, the more it takes you over and controls your mind. It alters your very take on the world, and here’s how.

I was driving to the post office the other day. To get to the post office, you drive right by the city offices and by the police station and the jail. As I rounded the corner, court must’ve been letting out. Lawyers and other well-dressed people were going to their cars, and a group of eight or ten prisoners in black and white striped jumpers were being taken back to the jail from the city offices/courthouse next door.

It feels wrong to use the passive in this case. Sure, the prisoners were escorted by policemen and their hands were cuffed behind their backs, but they were not head down in a grim line. They looked like, say, a class of kids that are walking together from one place to another. The prisoners were in a loose bunch, not in a line. They kept their distance from each other like kids who don’t know each other well. One prisoner was a short slender woman, and she was joking with the other prisoners. You could tell by the way she twisted her body in its jaunty step and the way a couple of the other prisoners were looking at her.

What did I immediately do when I saw this scene? I started composing a story. I wondered: Who is this woman? Would she be pretty or would she look like a crackhead? Why was she there? Was someone in the group her boyfriend? These details wound round and round.

And I immediately started composing a story. The first line: “Jenny was a school teacher and a crackhead.”

This is the curse of being a writer. You don’t just experience life; half of you is always questioning it, and sentences start to form in your mind. Themes start to emerge as you consider details and words. You are immediately taken by the situation and swept away. You want to write a story!

This wouldn’t be so bad, but details come at you all the time. Everything seems appareled in a celestial light, to borrow a well-worn phrase, and you want to capture it, express it, follow its winding path to see where it goes.

At least a couple of times a day (when I’m in my writing) I’m seized by the opening sentence of a story or essay. I want to immediately go and start writing. This would be so interesting, I think. It becomes almost a compulsion.

So I really try to not let my mind go on something unless I have time for it and I really want to write it. So, for example, I have two things I know I want to write today: this blog post and a guest blog post for a friend. Already I’ve got the first sentences and the ideas and the structure in my head. The tentacles of these stories are in my brain and pushing me forward!

What I’m Reading Today: I’ve been working on a friend’s website so I haven’t had much time to read.

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