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An extraordinary writers' conference was held one summer at Boulder, Colorado, under the poet (then Dean of College) Theodore Davison, who gathered together a faculty of writers which included Robert Frost, Tom Wolfe, Jean Stafford, and Whit Burnett (then young and bearded) among others. Some of the women students fainted from the altitude or went a little crazy, and the writing faculty lectured, read manuscripts, insulted students who couldn't write, and had a pretty good time.
One day Robert Frost came across Whit when he was reading a rare volume of Frost's poems--which Frost borrowed, but never returned. A few years later he did send Whit an easily available volume of his collected poems in place of the rare book, but without apology. Obviously Frost made no bones about pleasing himself first. When an intrepid student asked him one day why anyone should write in the first place, Frost's answer was unequivocal:
"I don't know why you should write, but I know why I do. I don't get the same satisfaction out of doing anything else."
To get more satisfaction out of writing than out of anything else certainly is part of what it means to be a writer. With distractions all around us, singleness of purpose is essential in getting at the natural rewards and pleasures of the tasks we set for ourselves. Any one of us may be asked one day, "Why write?" and it is well to be prepared with a satisfactory answer. It is well to be able to say we don't get the same pleasure from doing anything else.
But why does anyone want to be a writer?
To be a success, of course: To be read, to be loved, to be listened to--maybe towrite only best sellers, those baskets into which most publishing houses prefer to put their eggs. But never mind. All authors are entitled to some illusions, and chances are if one man ages a certain dedication and perseverance, if one applies the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair as Sinclair Lewis once advised, and ignores rejections, laughs at being (so far) unappreciated, and Keeps the Faith, Baby, why, he might just get somewhere in the end. Somewhere.
But man or woman, you've got to make up your mind. You can't be forever that uncertain beginner who goes around asking practically anyone, teacher or editor or wife, "But do you think I'm a writer? Is writing for me going to be worth the time and energy and sacrifices and maybe ridicule I'll have to spend on it? Should I keep on writing? Or should I give it all up and become a millionaire instead?"
There is that old story about J. P. Morgan, who was asked how much his yacht cost by a man who wondered if he could afford one: "If you've got to ask the cost, you can't afford it." If you need to be constantly reassured and encouraged, if you must lean on the opinions of others, you can't afford to write. You can't afford the time and effort "to bear the toil of writing," as E. M. Forster has said, so forget the whole thing if you can. It is better to know your limitations early and then turn to something else, either making millions, or another form of writing that won't demand such stoicism of you. Katherine Anne Porter has warned us that "to follow an art, you've got to give up something."
The need to write originates God-knows-where. But in any true writer the impulse has probably always been there, gathering strength in some such region as his solar plexus, tantalizing him to get on with his creation. Each time he reads something he wishes he had written, and covets the author's role, he is preparing his own self-image as a writer. Whenever he dwells overlong on deeds or behavior or injustices to someone loved, hated, or merely observed with an obsessive interest, he is already practicing his trade. When he arranges facts and fancies and words to express some obscure inner sense of form that is entirely his own imagining, and strives to create dramatic situations from bare and undramatic facts, he is surely on his way.
What does it matter if this introspection, these imaginary afterthoughts, do make neurotics out of anyone else? Or that such practices also fit thieves, liars, and actors? The incurable writer will happily admit he might have been all these (but not in his work!), and be grateful that nature has provided him with such built-in understanding of characters he may eventually use as his own. If the end of most men is right living, as has been said, the end of the writer is the strength and honesty of what he creates with the equipment he has and from observations he will make. He cannot afford to let anything in daily life go by without examining it after the fact; he will rarely fail to explore any nagging feeling of remorse, or guilt, or jealousy, or apprehension, or love, or smug self-satisfaction. But heaven help him if he indulges these traits once he has ceased being a writer--or if he never starts!
There is abundant evidence that those successful writers who keep at their labors for more than one brief season, devoting energy and hours of work not exceeded in any other profession, do so not only because of the satisfaction this gives them but also from the intensity of their desire to write. Katherine Anne Porter has said that she started out with nothing in the world but "a kind of passion, a driving desire." Eudora Welty has said of Willa Cather that she "embodied passion" in her work, and Somerset Maugham, in his still valuable book The Summing Up, asserted that "we do not write because we want to; we write because we must." Gentle French Abbe Dimnet once explained simply that "the experience of most artists is that the quality of their production is in keeping with the intensity of their wish." Fiction Writer's Handbook. Copyright � by Hallie Burnett. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.