So you want to be a writer?

Writing takes a prodigious amount of time, energy, and patience. It is the most intimate and demanding relationship

BRATTLEBORO — When I was 19 and newly married, I quit my teaching job at PS 70 in the Bronx on the spur of the moment to be a writer.

For five days, I sat in front of my Smith Corona staring at the blank white page and chain smoking Marlboros. There was a pot of black coffee on the stove, and I downed it 15 times a day like an alcoholic gulps Scotch.

I got up, stretched, sat down again, and stared at the white page whose blankness expanded directly in proportion to my anxiety.

“It is thrilling to be a writer,” I told myself, but what I felt was terror, because no words would come out.

The words felt like a subterranean sea of lava: bubbling, flaring, swirling.

One line rushed into my mind. I typed out “A bird is singing in the forest, but no one understands what it says.”

I typed the line over and over on the page. When no other words appeared, I crumpled the sheet of paper into a ball and hurled it on the floor.

I took breaks every 10 minutes.

Gradually, I increased the amount of time I was able to sit still in front of the blank page. By day three, I could sit 15 minutes. By day four, I sat 30 minutes. By 6 p.m., white paper balls covered the floor.

The invisible judge of words perched on my right shoulder like Poe's dark raven; if it saw the wrong word on the page, it would let out a terrible squawk.

I heard the key turn in the lock of the front door.

“Oh, you've been writing. That's great. Can I see what you wrote?” my husband asked, picking up a ball off the floor.

“A bird is singing in the forest and no one knows what it means,” he read aloud.

“Interesting,” he said and nodded.

The second night, he asked, ”What else have you written?”

The fifth night, he plucked the paper balls off the floor and threw them out.

On day six, I set the alarm clock for 30 minutes and decided to pay no attention to grammar, punctuation, spelling, or sentence structure. I would pour out all my thoughts, regardless of content. If no words had come out after 30 minutes, I would admit that I was not a writer.

Much to my relief, words spun out as smoothly and quickly as Rapunzel's golden threads. When the alarm went off, I counted the pages. Ten whole pages were filled with words.

At least there was something in my head. I was not stupid.

Out of desperation, I had discovered fast writing, a technique that removes writer's block. Words had popped like corks from the unconscious and spilled onto the page.

I had magically bypassed the invisible judge.

* * *

All the right words were there; at the age of l9, I thought I could scoop them up like trophies. I spent the next day trying to catch them.

At 19, things seem clear: right or left, black or white. You are either a genius or an idiot. I was a butterfly hunter trying to catch a rare, exquisite butterfly.

Clutching my net, I raced across a green field. A butterfly is delicate. You cannot touch its thin, translucent wings. The holes of the net must be just the right size: not too large and not too small. Too large a hole, the butterfly escapes; too small a hole, the butterfly dies.

The paradox is that nothing is pure black or white. Writing is the path not taken. You might need a machete. Sometimes you have to hack your way through the burrs and brambles to open a clearing.

Your road is your road. No one else has traveled it before.

You step forward in the dark clutching a flashlight that illuminates a small space in front of your feet. Your path is every conceivable shade of gray: pale blue, purple, iridescent. It is all in the moment.

Yes, other writers have left markers at the edges of their paths, but you are alone on your path, and it has no markers.

Yes, there are billions of words to use. Objects, memories, dreams, descriptions float in a realm of silence.

You wonder if you can be a writer.

* * *

We are bombarded by continuous tidal waves of images and words through emails, texting, Facebook, Twitter.

We carry cell phones, iPads, Androids, Blackberries, and iPhones as if it were a sin to be unreachable. We run across busy intersections listening to music on headphones.

We drown in words. We star in our own productions, create videos on YouTube, inform a worldwide audience at any time of the day or night where we are, what we do, what we think.

How many hits did a site get? Who is the winner? Who is the most visible? What is the difference between noise and communication?

The writer is invisible while writing in silence and solitude. It is the process that matters - not the immediate effect. Writing takes a prodigious amount of time, energy, and patience. It is the most intimate and demanding relationship.

* * *

What is this compulsion to write? And who is a writer?

The answer for each writer is different. Since I was 5 years old, I needed to make sense of the world because it felt like chaos. The way I did so was by writing words on a page.

I still do not know what I think until I see the experience translated through words on the page.

When I was 19, I believed writers were people who had books published. Writers were rich and famous.

Now, I see a writer is compelled to write for reasons of her own. These might not be reasons I comprehend, but it makes no difference to the writer, because she must write.

She will write through marriage, divorce, poverty, an abortion, a hysterectomy, breast cancer, births, and deaths. No matter what is happening, she keeps on recording, keeps on writing.

There is no beginning or end. It is all process in the moment.

It is all translation. She might think she knows the content or the genre of what she will write.

She ends up humble when she sees that what she writes teaches her.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates