Occasionally, someone truly interested in the art of writing will ask me, “What does it take to be a writer?”
The answer is one that often surprises them, for they expect me to say something about talent, a love of language or even a passion. But it’s a bit more complex than that.
It takes an ability to observe life in general and people in particular in order to pick out universal truths that can be understood by others, those pieces of wisdom that enlighten and even entertain. A story well told will have a “take away” such as a funny line, a memorable image, or an “aha” moment, one that carries with it an observation or witticism that will be repeated.
Though not a writer, my brother-in-law, Rodney, is a storyteller and a collector of truths gleaned from the experiences of others. A few years ago, Rodney went to the hospital to visit a much beloved elderly man who was badly ailing.
“Uncle Jesse, how’re you doin’?” Rodney asked, pulling up a chair and sitting down by his bed.
The old man sighed heavily. “Well, Rodney, I come down here to die but do you know how hard it is to die when all you good church people are prayin’ for me to live?”
It’s a good line and worth chuckling over, but Rodney, as wise a common man as ever I’ve met, immediately saw the deeper truth in Uncle Jesse’s words. He was ready to call it a day and move on out of this vale of pain and sorrow. But others, well-meaning and loving, were praying for a longer tenure here for Uncle Jesse.
“See,” Rodney said later, “just because we’re prayin’ for something for someone don’t mean that’s what they want. It’s what we want for them. We oughta ask ‘em what they want before we go to prayin’ for ‘em.”
The best writers are the ones who are always digging around in the dirt of life, trying to get to the good topsoil that will fertilize and grow strong and healthy a story that serves up a memorable moral.
To me, the most brilliant at that was Mark Twain, slightly rivaled by Will Rogers, the cowboy philosopher of the 1920s and ’30s. Both had a keen eye for human behavior and a wit that succinctly summed up the idiosyncrasies and proclivities of the human race.
“A man only learns in two ways,” Rogers said. “One is by reading, the other is by association with smarter people.”
Twain wisely noted that, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something that he can learn in no other way.”
The best observations are timeless. They span the years and remain pertinent. “From what I see,” Rogers wryly noted, “The United States Senate opens with a prayer and closes with an investigation.”
The Senate still opens with a prayer and, well …
When I was growing up, I often heard my parents and other like-minded folks who had been raised in the mountains say, “I’m studyin’ on it.”
I love that phrase. I appreciate what it means in both life and principle. If you study people, their experiences and situations, as well as your own; and if you dig down to find the lesson, you’ll also find something worthy of being said, of being written. Being a readable writer isn’t about stringing words or thoughts together, it’s about presenting a new twist to a common story or cleverly casting out a pearl of wisdom that outlives the writer.
Twain once said, “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.”
When it comes to writing, I’ll spin that a bit: The writer who won’t invest thought in the lives of others has no advantage over those who can’t.
He’d be better served to carry a cat by the tail.