One evening, my wife, mother, and I were eating at a sidewalk cafe in Maui. A homeless man walked by, stopped, and we began a discussion for the next ten minutes. He was tanned and carrying a fistful of change. He wore a plaid fedora and a matching vest (without a shirt). During the conversation, he hailed the Archangel Michael, quoted sections of Barack Obama’s first Presidential acceptance speech from memory, and ranted about the public showers on the island. If our food had not arrived, he would have kept talking.
When he left, I said, “Wow. That guy would make a great character in my next novel.” My wife did not seem to share my excitement.
Sometimes, I wish I could go places without foraging for characters.
Someone once likened being a writer to hunting quail. Here you have a guy with a vest, creeping through the brush, cradling a loaded shotgun. His steps are slow, methodical. He is not in a hurry or he may scare the critters. The hunter is ferreting out birds hunkering in the reeds, fully prepared to drop ‘em.
So the writer.
For us, leaving the office, pushing ourselves away from the computer, and venturing into the “real world” is akin to trudging into the sticks, armed, poised and ready. Because ideas are lurking everywhere! Whether it is watching the evening news, grocery shopping, or eating at a sidewalk cafe in Hawaii, the writer must be on the ready for ideas — plots and characters and quirky dialog — darting from the brush and skating skyward. Ever prepared to nail them on the spot.
Even if our significant other detests us always bringing along a firearm.
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 publishing stuff, 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.
Writers’ spouses? Not so much.
A successful day for a writer might be honing a villain’s tic 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 often far more nebulous.
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, Holmes trying to decipher his way out of Doyle’s mind, or The Cat in the Hat gestating inside the good Doctor? Stephen King suggested 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 sidewalk cafe in Maui.
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 privileged. 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 niggle 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.
Perhaps this is why writers often find so much inspiration interacting with… other writers.
That same aforementioned trip, I made the mistake of telling my wife that one of my best memories from our vacation 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.
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?