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Understanding Your Writer (or How to Live with a Spouse Who Stares at a Computer)

I made the mistake of telling my wife that one of my best memories from our recent trip to Maui was the two hours I spent every morning, from 5-7 AM, writing at a local coffee house. She rolled her eyes and said, “Gee, thanks!” Yes, the picturesque scenery and romantic sunsets were wonderful. But that small block of time at the laptop, pre-dawn, unraveling the story in my heart, is something I relished.

She didn’t understand.

Writing is unlike most careers.  At the end of the day, a mechanic can point to a purring auto, a salesman to the neighborhoods he’s combed, and a comedian to his audience’s laughter. But apart from actually getting stuff published, the writer’s life can seem unusually unproductive. Character arc. Plot development. Points of View. Narrative modes. Dialog and Pacing. Beginnings and Ends. These are the concerns of the average writer.

A successful day for a writer might be honing a villain’s twitch or deciding a method of murder, trimming a beefy intro or beefing up a spindly middle. Thrilling, isn’t it? My wife asks, So how’s it going? I push myself away from the computer, bleary-eyed. Great, I say. After 25,ooo words I decided that first-person omniscient POV won’t work.  To which I’m met with a blank stare. A custodian can, at least, find consolation in the smell of bleach stoking the urinal. The writer does not have that luxury. Our victories are far more nebulous.

Maybe that’s why getting published is so rewarding — it validates our seemingly perpetual inertia.

For the most part, a writer’s life is uniquely interior. And that’s something their spouses don’t always understand. You can’t shut up a character, especially one that has origins in your cranium. Can you imagine Captain Ahab in Melville’s noggin, all those years stewing? Or The Misfit, pummeling Ms. O’Connor’s psyche, trying to escape? Stephen King said that stories were like fossils, awaiting excavation by some patient author. Well, “excavation” is a process — tedious, at that — and does not just happen when I turn on the computer.  “Fossils” often come into view at the oddest hours — during a walk, while reading the newspaper, mowing grass, or sitting at a crosswalk listening to Miles Davis in my Chevy pickup. See, this writing thing is not a 9 to 5 endeavor.

And if you see a writer get that “spacey gaze”, their gift is often kicking in. Yes, it looks like detachment, and to the overly-sensitive or uninformed, disinterest. But don’t take it personal… especially if they start searching for something to write on. You are priviledged. Writers live in multiple worlds and one of them probably intersected yours.

No doubt, every writer is different. Some are more sociable, less quirky; some can leave their writing to the study and cordon their creative inspiration. Some manage to stay married, stay sober, and stay sane. Not every writer is a schizo.

But for me, I daydream, talk to myself, find amusement in the obscure and fascinate in details. I sit for long hours with virtually nothing to show for it. Words matter to me, and often I stickle over them. I need my space and wither without it. I watch people closely, and their stories intrigue me. Reading is part of my DNA. I’m not sure I could survive without it. And, maybe most of all, I don’t expect you to fully understand me.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, a “normal writer” is an oxymoron. So how much more abnormal is the person who puts up with them?

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Elaina Avalos February 18, 2009, 9:15 PM

    I’m not married. I think what you’ve written here can apply to anyone in a writer’s close circle (that doesn’t write themselves). Trying to explain to a family member or close friend what I’ve done, not done and why on my novel is sometimes a challenging task (blank stares). So I can definitely relate her although I’m single.

  • Xdpaul February 19, 2009, 9:49 AM


    I don’t write it often enough:

    Thank you.

  • Nicole February 19, 2009, 9:52 AM

    It’s a convoluted place between a writer’s reality and present day reality. My characters consume my thoughts, my concerns. What are they up to now that I’m not “with” them?!

    Seriously, I think that’s why we blog or whatever internet communication mode we attempt. To connect with the similar minded, to find a few who understand. My family prays for me, loves my work, actually asks if I’m going to “review” a novel or recent film we’ve seen. Such a tribute. And so needed.

    But the gut-level understanding of the process is far removed from my non-writing friends and family. They can’t help that, and I don’t blame or fault them. Different “calls”.

  • Heather February 19, 2009, 12:17 PM

    Great post.
    The other day, I was taking this assessment for a church thing. Question: 1-10 I enjoy getting to know people. I thought, how bad is it that most of the reason I enjoy getting to know people is because they make great characters and have great stories to be written?

  • Mike Duran February 19, 2009, 7:46 PM

    Funny, Heather. And so true. One evening we were eating at a sidewalk cafe in Maui. A homeless man walked by, stopped, and we began a surreal discussion for the next ten minutes. He was well-tanned and carrying a fistful of change. He wore a plaid fedora and a matching vest (without a shirt). During the discussion, he hailed the Archangel Michael, quoted sections of Barack Obama’s acceptance speak from memory, and rated the public showers on the island. If our food had not arrived, he would have kept talking. I’m sure the man will wrangle his way into one of my stories.

  • Ame March 13, 2009, 11:55 PM

    ” I made the mistake of telling my wife that one of my best memories from our recent trip to Maui was the two hours I spent every morning, from 5-7 AM, writing at a local coffee house. She rolled her eyes and said, “Gee, thanks!” ”

    i think i’ll giggle over picturing this scene for a good while 🙂

    while i don’t write like you, there are times i get something in my head and i MUST write it out. i cannot help it. it’s in there, and it must come out.

    sometimes it’s b/c God has given me something to say to someone. i know this is true b/c when i speak or write, God takes what is released from me, transforms it in mid air, and adjusts it for the ears of the receiver. i am always amazed at this … and look back at what was released from me wondering, and yet knowing, “from where did this come”

    but there are other times … there’s just something that must be written. most certainly, everytime that happens, someone will comment on my writing.

    i’m not a mike kinda writer, but i am an ame kinda writer. i don’t know if it will ever get past the little things i do now, mostly just for me. my life is too full to think that far. but that doesn’t change the reality that there have always been words in my head that demanded they be written. and so, i’ve found great joy, and release, in writing them.

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