The Writing Life: The Assassination of a Romantic Notion: You Are Not a Writer by P. Casey Telesk

I was a writer before. Then I started to become a journalist. Then I picked up photography. I still do a little of all that stuff. Sometimes. Maybe I’ll be an artist next. Pick up painting and buy a sailboat and travel the coastlines. You never know with me, man. — Penn Johnson, Folk Singer.

It’s just after 3 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 30, and I’m still trying to finish this article that I’ve been working on for more than a month, trying to say what I think needs to be said in a way that is not full of hate, seething with anger, or alienating to those who might not see things exactly how I see them—but that was before I remembered the above quotation and decided to forget about being polite. That guy is an asshole. When he claimed to be a writer, his name was Spencer H. Johnson, and his favorite writer was Hunter S. Thompson, and like the good doctor, Spencer also wrote in stream of consciousness. Now, he’s Penn Johnson, a Folk singer inspired by folk singer, Todd Snider. You never know with him, man.

Art is art, and writing isn’t something you simply do; it’s something you can’t help but do, and it isn’t something you can just as simply stop doing. Believe me, I’ve tried many times.

There’s an obsession today with being a writer. People call themselves a writer with extreme ease. But you wouldn’t, after taking your first ballet lesson, call yourself a ballerina. Would you? And, even more absurd, you wouldn’t simply strap ballet shoes to your feet and think you’re going to go and dance “Swan Lake” with the American Ballet. So why are the majority of people who touch pen to paper so quick to call themselves a writer? I’m not sure, but I’ll tell you a little of my story because I’m self-indulgent like that.

At the age of eight, after I wrote my first short story, I decided that I would pen the next “Great American Novel.” I couldn’t have known exactly what this meant, but I remember thinking those exact words. I’d decided that, not only was I going to be a writer, but that I’d be a great writer.

And so, here I am, just over 20 years later, the past six of which have been consumed by writing that great American novel, and I have very little to show for the pursuit of my greatness. I don’t publish much, and I think about publishing even less. And up until a few years ago, I can’t recall ever saying the words, “I am a writer.” I most likely did say them, but I certainly never truly thought them. I’ve spent almost the entirety of my Writing Life (whatever that even means) learning all I can about craft, constantly telling myself that, if I continued to do this, I would one day be a writer.

Early on, I’d read those craft books that everyone insists you simply HAVE to read. You know the ones I’m talking about; the books that encourage you to “embrace your inner writer!” by wearing berets and writing in faux French cafes, and that talk about The Writing Life — all the joys, and sometimes the perils, of it. But what these books generally fail to address is the actual subject of craft. Lots of talk about writing, and writing practices, but no mechanics. This article has taken a similar approach. For this, and more — I’m truly sorry.

After all these years, here’s the best advice I can think to give you: Throw the beret in the garbage, burn down the faux French cafe, press a gun to the head of that inner writer, and blow it’s brains against the wall. Because this is how you set yourself free.

I’ve written consistently, if not seriously, for the past 20 years, and only in the last three years have I started getting good, and only because I continue to push myself to learn more, to seek the help I need to become better each and everyday. It’s been an exhausting but beneficial journey.

Around 2010, I carried a notebook with me everywhere (a tip I’d learned from one of the books I was telling you about). Anywhere I went, people would ask, “Are you a writer?” I would tell them no, that I only carried the notebook because I was forgetful and needed to write things down in order to remember. After all, I wasn’t a writer, and I was embarrassed to admit that I was trying to be one.

That same year, with my notebook in hand, I attended an art exhibit. On the walls hung paintings of various landscapes I can’t even remember to describe, but each was accompanied by a piece of terribly written flash fiction. A friend, the proprietor of the space in which the art was being shown, called to me from across the room. “Casey, I want you to meet Nick,” he said as I walked up. A young man, about my age, donning tight pants, a knit skull cap, and a pencil mustache, stood next to my friend. He extended his hand and we shook. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Nick — The Writer.”

This is the moment I realized I was a writer, because I understood that for him it was about identity. All of those words on the wall existed only so that he could call himself a Writer. And for me, it was never about identity at all, never something that I aspired to be seen as. It was something I hid from, something I’d tried to give up time, and time, and time again, but never could.

Still, to this day, I do not publish much, nor do I have flash fiction pieces hanging with mediocre paintings in an art gallery somewhere, because I always remember that moment and Nick, the Writer. I keep it as a reminder that I am not a Writer. I am someone who writes, and above that I am someone who constantly pursues the knowledge necessary to get better with each step I take.

So, do yourself a favor and kill your inner-writers. Be creative about it, though. Drown him/her violently, or sever their limbs and leave them bleeding. I don’t care how you do it, but if you do — you will be better for it. I promise. By abandoning identity, we can move closer to our craft.

magrittes-pipe that says this is not a pipe

I’m sure you’ve all seen Magritte’s painting of the pipe with the French caption that reads: “This is not a pipe.” Well, stand tall and declare, “I am not a writer.” I know it sounds sort of meta, and being meta is total bullshit, which makes this confusing, but life is confusing — so just go now and write.

 

P. Casey Telesk, Craft & Writing Life Columnist

P. Casey Telesk published his first short story, an alternate history tale about the assassination of President Truman, in his elementary school journal at the age of eight. His 1999-2005 anthology of bad breakup poetry has not yet found a home. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he received a bachelor's degree in English literature from The Pennsylvania State University and is a graduate of the Wilkes University M.A./M.F.A. Creative Writing Program. He enjoys writing about modernist literature, the Death of Affect, and the importance of structure in literary craft.

 

Story image credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Jay Cross
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  • Jon

    This is a solid, necessary piece. I venture to guess that anyone who takes umbrage with what you say here is the same person who wouldn’t take perhaps your most salient point to heart– you get better by writing consistently, sure. But you continue to grow and, dare I say, become a “writer” when you are able to identify where your own weaknesses lie, and humbly seek help in order learn how to strengthen your writing. People should worry less about “looking the part” and more about filling the page. Well done.

    • P Casey Telesk

      “But you continue to grow and, dare I say, become a “writer” when you are able to identify where your own weaknesses lie, and humbly seek help in order learn how to strengthen your writing.” Stop saying things better than I said them! Haha. For real, you hit the nail on the head, and I’m so, so glad to read your words. Thank you.

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  • Brilliant.

    • P Casey Telesk

      Thanks, man. You’ve been such a positive force for me, supporting my writing from the moment we were first spoke.

  • Wendy Lynn Decker

    True to the core.

    • P Casey Telesk

      Thank you, thank you!