Ownership. Protection. Chest-your-cards. Stand guard. These are words I wouldn’t normally place on my writing. I’ve never worried that someone would steal my ideas. I’ve never worried about copyrighting my words. I’ve simply written with the baseline belief that we are all in this lifetime together, and there is simply no possible way that I can write like someone else or that they can write like me. Even if we tried. In the memoir I published, I could have easily thought, “Why even bother to submit it, never mind write it in the first place. The entry-point is a marital crisis. Who cares. It’s been done a million times. The subject is as worn as my cowboy boots.” But I don’t think that way. I know that each one of us has a completely unique voice. I watch this being proven every time I lead a Haven Writing Retreat. I give a prompt to a group of ten people (myself included) and off we go. When the timer rings, we read. And every time, I stand in awe as ten voices go in ten totally different directions off of the same launch pad. It’s miraculous, the human mind, when it is mixed with heart language.
That said, I was deeply moved by something my writer friend Bill Kenower wrote on his blog recently. He is a true author advocate via his Author Magazine and Author 2 Author radio show, and thusly does a lot of musing upon what makes writers tick. His words: “When an author gives away her story, she remembers that just as what had seemed like hers now belongs to everyone, what had also appeared to belong to others now belongs to her. There is always enough, because everything that matters already belongs to everyone.” This is the definition of abundant thinking. The opposite end of the spectrum which might lead one to guard themselves as a writer or as a reader.
Writers mine their lives, whether in fiction or non-fiction. Even with journalism where opinions belong in invisible ink, you can bet that writer is still feeling the person they’re interviewing or the scene they are reporting. Life offers stories and writers hold up the mirror to remind us that we’re all in this together. Sometimes however, as Bill points out, that act of holding up the mirror feels so intimate, that writers choose to leave the world alone to sit on the front stoop and just watch it all going by without a lot of fuss. To lie naked in bed on a summer morning, staring out the window at the breeze in the trees– each of us in our own rooms to hold up our own mirrors should we choose.
As writers, we’re grateful for the stories the world serves up, but perhaps in the end, to Bill’s point, some of those stories as we perceive them, belong to us. (Just as many of the world’s stories belong to the world.) It’s true that I have written fourteen books. Actually, fifteen and a half now. And it’s true that I have only submitted a handful of them for publication. Many of them are exercises in learning. Some of them are pretty good. But not all of them feel like they want to make the voyage outside of my office closet in Montana where they have been minding their own business and keeping me company from time to time—maybe more like standing as gatekeepers—for decades. They are reminders that I do this thing called writing. That I show up for it, open that vein and bleed til the end. Having readers does not necessarily make it more real. Or more complete.
That may sound crazy. Why would someone spend so much time creating a world made of words, pouring her heart into characters whose voices may never be heard? Well I’ll tell you exactly why: if a writer is holding up a mirror, she needs a mirror to hold up in the first place. And creating that mirror takes just about everything I’ve got. And sometimes…that mirror is best turned upon myself.
Thank you, Bill, for helping me to feel better about my closet, then, of gatekeepers. They are stalwart, true, and for now…mute to everybody but me. Hopefully the books I am writing now will take a different voyage. But whether or not they do, I know that I will have been better for writing them.
Here is Bill’s blog post:
My friend Laura Munson recently published an article in The Week about her choice to step back from a familial leaning toward hoarding. It’s a funny and touching piece in which she describes a frank conversation with her daughter about the habit to keep everything from a 50-year-old pair of socks to bottles that can someday be reused as vases. I don’t believe it gives too much away to tell you that the article ends with Laura and her daughter taking a long overdue trip to Goodwill to give away all that had been stored in crawl spaces, closets, and forgotten corners of her garage.
The piece deals with physical things, of course, but it reminded me of another story she had told me years before. Laura is the author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is, a memoir she published after having written and not published fourteen novels. In one of our many interviews, she confessed that she didn’t even submit all the novels she wrote. She worked and worked on them, loved them, and then kept them to herself.
This is a more common impulse for a creative person than you might think. Eventually, every writer learns that the story doesn’t really belong to her. The moment another person reads our story, they make it their own, using their own imaginations to complete the scenes we painted with only a few strokes. Moreover, it is the reader feeling the heroine’s fear and loss and love and joy. What is more personal to us than what we feel? It doesn’t matter that what we feel grows from a story someone else wrote: that experience is ours, and so that story is ours as well.
Which is why an author gives away every story he or she writes. You may get paid, but you are still giving it away, casting it from the nest to a world where anyone who wants it can make it their own. In this way, we are all Communists of the heart. When an author gives away her story, she remembers that just as what had seemed like hers now belongs to everyone, what had also appeared to belong to others now belongs to her. There is always enough, because everything that matters already belongs to everyone.