“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”
~ Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver (1955 – present) is an American novelist, poet and essayist. Each of her books published since 1993 have been on the New York Times Bestsellers List and the topics focused upon range from social justice to human interaction with our environment. She is an award-winning author many times over, and has even established and funded her own $25,000 award: The Bellwether Prize to support “literature for social change” to authors of unpublished works. This award is given out every two years on even years.
I am a self-published author, and through my work with Rave Reviews Book Club I have had many discussions with other independent authors about the writing process. What I have discovered is that how a writer produces a book will vary from author to author. What works for me, may not work for another. We develop characters differently, plot and plan our story lines in varied ways, and generally adopt a writing process unique to ourselves. For example, something magical happens to me when I sit down to a keyboard – the ideas start flowing! That doesn’t happen when I have a pen in my hand. That being said, I always pay close attention to the advice of a successful author like Barbara Kingsolver.
What I like so much about this quote is that she doesn’t presume to tell us to adopt her writing process. No, she speaks here about an important principle that any and all authors can adopt without sacrificing their unique style and process. Kingsolver begins with a practical tip regarding one’s writing environment. Close your door and be alone as you write. I am not an author with a vast array of published tomes, but I understand the need for solitude. Writing is a deeply personal experience that requires that I quiet myself first. To do that, I need to be alone – without distractions from without. Only then can I empty my conscious mind of all other concerns that have nothing to do with the writing I sat down to do. At that point I can establish a link (I don’t know exactly how) to my subconscious mind which has been very busy sorting out problems associated with my book’s plot, characters, etc. Once I’m relaxed enough and this link is established, I experience the influx of ideas and I begin to write.
Kingsolver urges us, as writers, to waste no time trying to ascertain what others may wish to hear from us; but rather, figure out what we need or want to say. I believe it is a solid nugget of wisdom that I dare not ignore. How would I begin to guess what others want to hear from me? From their reviews of my previous work? Perhaps. Here’s a more pertinent question. Who is sailing this ship? I am the captain, the author of my book. It is my name that adorns the cover. Therefore I need to write the book the way I see fit in terms of the content. Of course, editors will have input, but the ideas expressed in the book are mine.
What do I have to say? When I write, I am a storyteller – especially when I write a novel. When I taught History for over three decades to high school students, I told stories. Every day I would encounter questions by students who were bound and determined to lead me into storytelling mode. Of course, they had their own agenda, but I found that I became most animated when I spun a yarn – about a World War I battle, a former Prime Minister, or political intrigue. The topic didn’t matter because I loved to tell stories to my classes. That was my passion. Former students would tell me later that they loved those yarns and that they made History come alive for them.
How is writing a novel any different from spinning a good story in a classroom? They are the same in one important element… the storyteller. What made my stories in class enjoyable for my students was my passion. I really got wound up – eyes bulging and flashing, arms waving, hands gesturing and I moved around the room – sometimes sitting on top of the teacher’s desk, then jumping off with a flourish. I feel the same sense of excitement and urgency when I write, even if I’m not moving about my office and flailing my arms around like a madman.
I have a good idea that I will write with passion, but I need to decide what it is I want to say. As Barbara Kingsolver reminds us, it is the only thing we have to offer. It is our authenticity and our uniqueness that we have to offer our readers. As a writer I must find my own voice and style to tell my stories in my own way. I must be me as I sit before the keyboard and express what I need to say. There are times I sit before this keyboard with an empty screen before me and just wonder what to write and where to start. Am I waiting for inspiration? No. I wait for calm in my mind. I wait for the link to my subconscious mind and then I brace for the flood of ideas that make my fingers fly across the keyboard. Yes, Barbara, I’ll close my door. It is a good beginning to a wondrous journey…