What makes a writer?

What makes a writer? I’m not really talking about what makes a good writer. I’m talking about what qualities drive a person in the direction of writing professionally: what qualities we writers seem to share, and what qualities made me a writer. What qualities point a person in the direction of writing so strongly that it’s hard not to head that way — whether you understand where you’re going or not.

Based on my observations of myself and other writers, here are the qualities that I think that many writers share and that help make us what we are.

1. Writers have remarkable powers of recall.

Ray Bradbury also believes this to be an important commonality among writers, and like me, he has memories of infancy. I’m pretty sure I have pre-birth memories, too. I have a photographic memory and can remember events, names, places, and faces from earliest childhood.

A strong memory helps you to write because it gives you so much material, a lifetime’s worth, all inside your head and accessible with a single thought. There are whole worlds inside you. Whole worlds of memory: of what people wear, how they wear their hair, how they smile, how it felt to drive to play rehearsal with the wind in your hair when you were 17 and in a good mood for no reason at all… I have strong sensory recall too, and can remember smells, sounds and sensations exceptionally well.

All this helps you become a writer because it sure makes your job easier… So much of life is stored inside you.

2. Writers make sense of the world through writing; they process life by writing about it.

Even before I became a professional writer, I was writing. I was infamous for sending long emails: reviewing movies, telling about something that happened to me, sending long philosophical blah-blah, you name it. I still do it now. I’ll never stop.

I saw a play last night, collapsed into my bed exhausted at 1AM, woke up this morning sick and headachy and totally blogged about the show before breakfast (and I was hungry this morning). Writing isn’t only how I make a living. It’s how I process, digest and understand what happens to me and to others.

3. Writers have an innate ability to describe things well.

If you have this skill, you’re well set up to become a good writer and you’ll find the call of writing that much easier to obey. I don’t know that it’s something one can learn. I think it’s something that you have or you don’t have, and while you can certainly develop it, IMO you won’t go too far as a writer unless it comes to you readily.

There’s a delicious feeling to landing the phrase that says exactly what you want it to say. And you know it when you’ve done it, which is to say I know it, with a profound and pleasing certainty. And I know it when I don’t do it. With almost all of the writing that I do for this blog, I don’t use that ability so much. I’m willing to make compromises. Blog entries go up quick, usually contain errors, and never get a proper edit like paid work would. In my recent post about the storm, there are a few phrases that don’t sound quite right to me (I don’t love the leaves leaving their stations). But I do like my description of the lightnings as “great white camera-flashes that turn the sky into a pale backdrop for the black tree-branches.” I don’t love it, but I like it.

When the phrase is right, you just know. You feel the tendrils of your mind go searching out into the mindscape, into every word you’ve ever learned. You are like a mighty octopus at the center of the universe, with a million infinitely long arms, reaching everywhere. And when you seize the right words, and you know they are the right ones, the feeling is electric.

One response to “What makes a writer?

  1. Hello Jennifer,

    The perfect phrase is as perfect as the one who created it. It can either resonate in the reader’s soul or fall flat to the ground. Nevertheless, you are the primary audience.

    If you feel good about it, let it be written.

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