by Cynthia Newberry Martin
For six years, I was a lawyer. I went to law school; I passed the bar exam; I was sworn in, and I paid my licensing dues. Et voila. It fits, doesn’t it?
Far more difficult to know if you’re a writer.
There’s the obvious, “You’re a writer if you write.” But that’s like saying you’re a cook if you cook. When I was in law school, I heard over and over again, “You have to learn to think like a lawyer.” But that doesn’t work here either. What defines a writer is not “thinking.”
All my life I’ve been a reader. While I was taking time off from work, I began to imagine what it would be like to have the kind of life where you created magic on a page. In March of 1995, driving from Columbus to Atlanta, I pulled over to the side of the road and began to write. I wrote two more times that year, seven times in 1996. Then in January of 1997, I sat down to write and I’ve been writing ever since. Ten stories, two novels, three book reviews and countless blog posts. I’ve had some of those stories published. I’ve had writers I respect and admire say my novels are good. At some point in there, I became a writer.
In his blog, “How Not to Write,” Jamie Grove wrote “For many, the making of the writer is a bloody affair.” So true. It’s not easy, especially if you’re a thinker. So how did it happen?
First, there was enjoyment. Writing felt good, and I wanted to keep doing it. Stephen Elliot wrote in The Rumpus that more than anything, writing is what he wants to do with his time. It’s also what I want to do with mine.
Second, there was recognition. Henri Matisse came to painting late, also after trying his hand at lawyering. He wrote, “From the moment I held the box of colours in my hand, I knew this was my life.” Sometimes we can only discover the shape of our lives as we live them. It’s like that glass slipper, though. When it fits, it fits.
Third, there was compulsion. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, it completes me. And in a world of errands and TV, it feels real, as if I’ve done something solid that goes deep rather than just across.
Fourth, there was awareness. Dorothy Allison said, “Be a watcher.” I would have said I was, but I wasn’t. I might have noticed things, but I was not constantly present in the possibilities of the moment. It’s taking practice.
When I read, there are the writer’s words on the page. There are also the unwritten sentences I hear, the connections I make, the creeks I jump, the rivers I forge—these are the reader’s contribution. The reader’s voice. If you come to writing from the perspective of a reader, as I did, you come to writing with a reader’s voice. This seems obvious, and yet I didn’t realize it until a few months ago. When I write, I’ve been putting both voices—the reader’s and the writer’s—on the page, which then left the reader nothing to do.
My writing group, led by Pam Houston, has helped me to weed that reader’s voice out. Pam is always telling me to “trust the reader.” I do, I say. Really. It turns out my problem was not that I didn’t trust the reader but that I couldn’t separate my reader self from my writer self. Now that I understand what’s been happening, I can do the weeding. As a writer I want the reader to jump and forge.
In January I discovered the Gyrotonic Expansion System, a type of exercise similar to Pilates. I love doing it. Every twist. Every turn. It’s all about getting in touch with your body. Most of the movements are circular and three-dimensional—like life. As founder Juliu Horvath said, “You will…find the unexplored parts of the body.” Naturally it’s not for everyone, but I clicked with it. In late April, I discovered that the “wave” was a larger movement than I had understood. I was really supposed to roll far more and involve more of my body.
“Oh,” I said, “I’ve been doing it wrong all this time.”
“No,” Kayley said, “you’ve been doing it right. This is just a different level of right.”
Writing is a practice. I must do it. I enjoy doing it. And it feels right. It’s in the way I go about my days. It’s an openness to impressions, a desire to acknowledge the inner life, to make connections and find meaning. It’s a desire to seek out the unexplored parts of life. To take what I see in the world, run it through my insides, and see what falls onto the page. I’m not a writer because I write. I’m not a writer because of something I do or don’t do or something I have or have not done. A writer is something I am.
Cynthia Newberry Martin lives in Columbus, Georgia, the home of Carson McCullers. Her blog, Catching Days, is one of Powell’s Books “Lit Blogs We Love,” and on the first of each month, a guest writer contributes to the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Her fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Clapboard House, Six Sentences, Contrary, and Storyglossia. Her first novel, The Painting Story, was a finalist in the 2008 Emory University Novel Contest. She is currently working on a new novel, Between Here & Gone. Find her at Catching Days.
Photo credit above: Nikki Tysoe