Wednesday, October 11, 2006

PH: On Knowing You Are a Writer

In her book For Writers Only Sophy Burnham asks the question “When did you first know you were a writer? Did you always know?” Oftentimes, the writer is the last one to know.

I recently edited a student writer’s essay; I’ll call him Larry. Larry was assigned a report, a factually supported essay about a problem within any culture that either lacked a solution at present or if the student so desired, a potential solution. The point was that I wanted the students all writing about a topic for which they felt passionate. Larry turned in anything but a report. His essay, if you want to call it that, rose to the level of edgy prose. Setting, dialogue, descriptive prose, narration, and expository writing, were all roughly lumped together in a story he told about a friend of his who had gotten into some trouble with the law. There were police dogs, local cops, guns, handcuffs, and a delightfully drawn character that was compelling and psychologically complicated.

When I selected a few “shine” papers to read aloud to the class, Larry’s mouth fell open as I read his name in front of his classmates. He was mystified. I was delighted. I had found a gem among the requisite essays and was the first person to tell Larry, “Yes, you are a writer and probably a novelist.” Hang the assignment! Larry was a storyteller and up until that moment, did not know.

For years as I struggled in misery in real estate, I recalled the day that Professor Francis Gwaltney, III pulled my freshman essay out of the stack and asked my permission to read it aloud. He asked me, “What is your major?” My father had insisted that I major in elementary education. I told him and he said, “You’re no grade school teacher. You are a novelist.” Like Larry, I was mystified. His words nagged at me, nipping at my Nikes until the day I gave my words story form. I had loved literature and writing, but in all my years at an Arkansas high school not once had any teacher noticed my abilities. I was overlooked and had grown comfortable with being overlooked. Years later when I got my first little book deal I remembered Francis Gwaltney and was still mystified. How had he known that I was not simply a writer in the raw, but a novelist? As I read Larry’s essay to the class, I finally realized why. Author Francis Gwaltney, also the best friend of Norman Mailer, was at that time writing his thirteenth novel. He knew like I knew that Larry was a storyteller. Nothing profound, but it takes one to know one.

It could be that each of us write because we have been prodded into the writing arena by a writer who first saw us as a glob of potential. During the long nights as we bend over our keyboards writing for the audience of one, pondering words and their meaning, behind us is a voice of encouragement that won’t stop nagging at us to keep trying until we get it right. The words have formed like a thunder cloud overhead—you are not a baker, a butcher, or candlestick maker; you are a novelist and won’t be satisfied until your life takes the form for which you were made.

When did you know?

Patricia Hickman teaches writing at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Her newest book, Earthly Vows, is set to release any day. You may visit her website at or blog on over to


At 7:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

when I got my first little book deal I remembered Francis Gwaltney and was still mystified.

These are my words. Just got my first one and am still mystified. Always loved writing, just never thought that dream coud be mine. I was wrong. God's purposes will always prevail.

At 8:53 AM, Blogger batgirl said...

We're a lot of low self-esteem. I wonder how many writers live and die without showing their stuff to the world, because they have no idea it's worth showing?

At 9:51 AM, Blogger Erica Vetsch said...

Growing up in a church where anything done in God's name must be a drudge/sacrifice/cost you in some way or you weren't doing it right, it didn't occur to me God might call me to do something I liked/enjoyed/might be good at, until two years ago...fifteen years after I'd married and moved out of that church. It was epiphanal. I'm writing and I'm having a blast.

At 11:14 AM, Blogger Michael Ehret said...

When my best friend kept nagging me for more chapters -- and I kept putting him off, on purpose, to draw out the suspense for him.

At 2:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The day my fifth grade teacher handed back my A+ book report and asked if I had written it myself.

I had. In class. Without the book to hand for reference.

By then I already had one novel under my skinny belt. Somewhere around age 9 or 10, writing a novel just seemed like the thing to do.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

My fifth grade teacher told me but I don't think I believed her.

Then in high school, we had some kind of state test we had to write an essay for. My teacher risked his job to show me I had scored #1 in the state. He told me to do something with the information that wouldn't get him fired. I love that man.

I didn't do anything with it though. I've heard all my life, "You should write a book" and I've always known that one day I would.

Almost three years ago, God gave me a thump on the back of my head and I'm writing the novel.


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