Friday, October 19, 2007

From The Horse's Mouth ...

from Jacqueline

Who was it, commenting on our blog recently, who said something about staring at the blank page until you sweat blood from your brow? It just came to mind as I thought about my post tomorrow. Usually, I write at the last minute, composing my post while looking at the clock on my laptop, wondering if I’ll get it finished before Patty or Jim (I know they’re usually early birds) check the blog. Lord knows where the words come from, but usually they do, mainly because I am a person who seems to be incensed fairly easily, and for fodder, one peek at the New York Times or Britain’s Independent newspaper will get me going on some issue or another. But today is Thursday and I know if I don’t write something now, ready to post tomorrow, then it won’t happen because I have to take my horse to the dentist. Yes, that’s right.. Horse to the dentist.

That isn’t my horse. Sara is better looking.

So, because I don’t know what to write about, I am going to noodle around here on the page and see if I can string some words together to explain what it means to me to be a writer, to be able to say, “I am a writer.” Ah, you see, that’s the first thing you have to do, if you are serious about this business – you have to lay claim to your work. I don’t care if the only writing you’ve done today happens to be composition of a Costco shopping list (and will someone tell me why I go to that forsaken place to buy toilet tissue and come out $200 lighter? Perhaps it’s because of all the c**p you can buy there), if you think that being a writer is your destiny, then you’d better sit and write and lay claim: I am a writer.

(that’s the room where Margaret Drabble sweats blood)

I learned this from my cousin, Stephanie – and I might have mentioned this before, but heck, it’s my post, so I’ll mention it again. My cousin Stephanie passed away at the age of 41. Towards the end of her life, when she was on so many meds she couldn’t sleep at night, she’d call me because, being in another time zone, I was awake. At the time Stephanie was involved in her own writing project, a journal for her then twenty-year-old daughter. It was an interesting blend of thoughts on life, reflections on the past and how blessed she considered herself to be to have such a lovely daughter, along with instructions on subjects such as, “How to pay the mortgage,” “Dealing with the bank,” and “What to do when the car doesn’t start.” One evening when we were talking, I told Stephanie that what I really wanted to do with my life was to be a writer. “Well then,” she said, “that’s what you have to call yourself. You’ve got to say, ‘I am a writer.’ In fact, I’m going to start telling everyone I know that my cousin Jackie is a writer.” That was to be our last conversation. Stephanie passed away a month later.

I was already scribbling away and publishing some articles and essays, and though I didn’t really know quite what I should do to take the leap to the next level, I started referring to myself as a writer. Then I joined a memoir class and wrote a memoir of my childhood. OK, so that memoir is still languishing somewhere in the nether regions of my computer, but I learned something about myself – that I could write a lot of pages, which meant I could write a book. I didn’t know what I would write, but I knew that if I kept calling myself a writer and taking any opportunity to write that came along, it would be like drops of water on stone – I’d eventually make a dent somewhere!

So, what does it mean to me to be a writer? It means I am very, very lucky. It means that not a day goes by that I do not thank the gods and goddesses of creative endeavor for my good fortune, to be able to do something that I love and have people actually enjoy what I do. I remember someone at one of my bookstore appearances saying to me, as I signed their book, “Oh, you write all the letters of your name.” I was a bit surprised by the comment, and replied, “Anyone who chooses to spend some of their discretionary income on one of my books gets every letter of my name and a big thank-you to go with it.”

(this is Seamus Heaney’s hangout)

I work a lot of hours in a week, but I can be as much of a dreamer as I want to be and know that it’s part of the job, as is reading and calling it research. Everything I see about me is another thread for the web I weave, which is wonderful as my curiosity has been known to slip over into being nosey – but that’s OK because I am a writer.

Being a writer has brought community. If I had known twenty-five years ago that writing a novel in the mystery genre would bring me into a cadre of writers who are extraordinarily supportive, who are great fun and who care about the work of others in the field, I would have said those words a lot sooner: “I am a writer.”

(Ian Rankin’s place of work)

When I think of the terrific people I’ve met since I published my first novel – and that includes booksellers, librarians, readers, workshop organizers (the list goes on) – I just hope that I don’t wake up soon and find that I didn’t do it after all, that it was all a dream and that no one ever said, “My cousin Jackie’s a writer.’

So, whether you are one of the published greats or someone we all look forward to reading one day, look in the mirror and say, “I AM a writer.” Good, isn’t it, even with the beads of blood and sweat and the blank white page?

And if you think I’m adding a photo of the huge mess that is my working space – not a chance!

Have a great weekend. By the time you read this, I will probably be looking at the business end of a set of very large teeth.


  1. The fact that I'm in a time zone three ours earlier than you makes it easy to seem like an early bird.

    Good post, Jackie.


  2. And what a writer you are!

    Tom, T.O.

  3. J,
    I was waiting for a photo of your work space.

    If the Fire Department sees mine, I'm afraid they'd condemn the house.

    Many writers feel blessed to be able to do this as their life's work. I see it a bit differently. More like an illness. You just can't help yourself. You should have become an investment banker. You should have opened a Burger King franchise across the street from the community college. You should have run drugs from Mexicali to L.A.

    But no, instead, you choose to sit in front of the blank page, sweating blood. There's a germ or virus or alien being that compels you to be a storyteller. An illness, and a terminal one at that...

  4. from Jacqueline

    Jim - I'l factor in your time zone next time I think you're an early bird. And thank you, Tom - what a great thing to hear on a Friday!

    Paul, the reason I did not include a photo of my work space is that "space" is missing - you would need a survival pack to negotiate your way from one side of the room to the other, and it's only about 12ft. Can't help it - books and papers everywhere. If I clean it up I won't be able to find a thing. I once went to a fortune teller years ago, who said, "I see a lot of paper in your life." Oh, really?

    And I know what you mean about the disease. Last time I called out a plumber and forked over $120 for fifteen minutes work, I thought, "I'm in the wrong job."

  5. I love this post, Our J--especially the evil pencils.

    I agree with Paul that it's a disease. I remember reading that William Burroughs once said, "language is a virus from outer space." I feel a bit like that. But it's a nice disease once the fever passes. As long as you keep away from those pencils.

  6. from Jacqueline

    Cornelia - I reckon the compulsion to write is about the only disease I don't mind "suffering" from. And as we all know, it could be a lot worse! Heck, I could have been an investment banker - what a stinker that would be.

  7. Nice blog! I'm a writer... I love words, love reading & writing, but never feel comfortable 'putting myself out there'. And the thought of joining a writing group fills me with dread. It doesn't matter how many people encourage me, I always manage to crush myself with self-doubt.

    I doff my hat to the talented folk who dare take that step to stand up and say "I am a writer".

    And then actually do it.