Read an Excerpt
Thinking Likea Writer
All my life I had been training to be a writer, unaware. Probably you have too. Writers script reality, for the characters they make up and for themselves. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.
As a child growing up on a remote Illinois farm with one horse and no playmates, I had two personae. By day I was Belle Starr, leader of the Younger Gang, riding Wildfire with two redhandled cap pistols strapped on my hips. But at night in the house, when my father "couldn't think straight" if Belle galloped a broomstick horse, I became Brenda Starr, reporting adventures from around the world. I made up the plots, invented exotic settings I longed to see, created the minor characters, and spoke in the voice of the fearless protagonist. I thought I was just playing. Some days as I dash down Madison Avenue, thumbs hooked in my Levi's belt loops, a notebook in my back pocket, I like to think I still have a Belle Starr stride. I know I have a Brenda Starr eye for a story.
So do you, or you will have when you begin to think like a writer. But beware. Writing is addictive. Humorist Fran Lebowitz says she feels as if she's wasting time when she's doing anything other than writing, and that includes tending the sick and going to funerals.
When you begin to think like a writer, you can't turn it off. You will be looking for the details that make the story real, no matter what the circumstance. In a New York Times Magazine article, "The Story of a Street Person, Remembering My Brother," Elizabeth Swados said when she heard her brother hadbeen killed, she kept wondering what kind of truck would run over him in New York City. A Mack truck? A cement mixer? A pickup truck? A van?
Novelists notice how people wear their heels down, show defiance on a crowded bus, get attention, ask people to lunch. They study faces to determine what makes them beautiful, hard, oblivious. Writers read fiction, not only for the story; but also to discover how far away from the central action the story begins, how the author makes transitions, resolves the conflict. When a novelist (you) has a story, she loses her identity to the protagonist.
The first step in becoming a writer is always having your notebook within reach. I've carried one since I was thirteen. The editor of the Vandalia Leader gave me the original when he offered me my first job, to write a column, "Lou's Teen Talk," for my hometown weekly in Illinois. "Don't miss anything," was his advice I pass on to you. I took it seriously. The experiences stored in that first notebook became a teen novel called Megan's Beat.
The adult novel in my computer today is called Clipped Wings. Midwesterners always seem to be trying to get away. Twain took to the river as a steamboat captain. Hemingway went to war as an ambulance driver. I signed on with an airline as a stewardess. Writing the novel, I've learned no matter if the odyssey carries you over the ocean, down the river, or up into the sky, ultimately home will be where you started, even if it's not where you wanted to be or where you will ever live again.
Be prepared. Thinking like a writer could change the way you see and feel about where you came from or where you live.
Toting an accent thicker than suet pudding, Wayne came to New York to become a writer and to shed a small hometown in North Carolina, where people ate moon pies and their speech was sprinkled with idioms like "go to preaching." After a year, reading his work to a group begging for more downhome flavor about people called Chigger and Mama who put on her weddin' dress before hanging herself in the barn, he went back with a tape recorder, a camera, and his notebook. Returning with twenty pages added to his notebook and an album filled with lovely photos of weathered tobacco barns, privies, "crick" beds, hay bales, a barefoot child in a too-long pink dress, and feeling slightly embarrassed by the pride andaffection they revealed, Wayne said, "I guess looking at things like a writer does make a difference, doesn't it? I found some things I had overlooked...I'm going back in the fall when the tobacco has turned...."
Even if where you came from hasn't been your ultimate destination, a backward look through the sharply focused eyes of a writer might spotlight more than nostalgia. Remember the cousin who made you feel ugly and think your mother dressed you funny? Or the first sale you made ... those knotty apples you swiped from the tree in your neighbor's backyard? And that spooky alley where you had your first cigarette ... wonder if it's still as eerie? How would you describe how scary it looked when you were twelve?
You learn to write by writing. It can't be taught, but with a little luck I can train you to be a spy. Writers are spies. When you begin to think, hear, and see like a writer, you will be one, writing a novel won't be as hard as you assume, and your life will be so much more fun.