The life of a writer is fraught with danger. No, not physical—unless you consider countless paper cuts sustained from printing out 300 pages of your manuscript to send to an agent, or perhaps tumbling backwards in your computer chair after a moment of deep contemplation—okay, make that stubborn writer’s block. Instead, the danger lies in trying to prove one’s self to the world, or even just your family and friends.
It’s a well-known joke that upon announcing the decision to become an English major, writers are invariably met with any combination of the following responses:
1) Eye rolling/raised eyebrows/nervous giggling
2) “Oh! Do you want to be a teacher?”
3) “What are you going to do with that?”
4) “So you’re planning on marrying a doctor?”
5) “Ah.” Followed by awkward silence.
I personally know writers who have met with similar reactions when they’ve announced they’re going to write full-time. Not only do they risk being judged on the merits of their work by agents, editors, other writers, and all manner of other literary professionals, but also by well-meaning (but often non-understanding) loved ones who question the very essence of what they, the writers, do.
So what is the very essence of what you, a writer, do when you write? In short, you empathize.
I realize that’s not as recognizably heroic or impressive as saying “I save lives” or “I mentor young children in economically-impoverished areas.” That’s often a reason writers feel guilt over spending any amount of time, whether it be eight hours a day, five days a week, or a half hour every Tuesday, writing. What is often easy to forget is the beautiful gift writers have of vicariously living a life they never could otherwise live—and sharing it with others.
I was struck, while reading Markus Zusack’s THE BOOK THIEF last month, by this very concept. Here is an author writing in the 21st century about (among many other things) a young girl in Nazi Germany and death—all experiences that, I would say are safe to assume, he has not lived personally. But how he gets inside these lives and expresses them is a feat beyond description.
Writers have the capacity to show immense strength, frailty, joy, struggle, life, death, jealousy, torture, wantonness, rage, humor, grace, suffering, pride, and power. And that ability comes not just from seeing it in life, but by, in some large or small part, imagining themselves in someone else’s life.
Though it is not an ability you would put on a resume after graduating college, it is a quality that writers (and certainly many other types of artists) possess, that you should not undervalue and that you should not forget. Not for one moment.