The other night I was a panelist at a local library presentation on writing memoir. The audience was enthusiastic and, as we discovered through the Q & A segment, many of them had stories to tell and weren’t sure how to get them going. When the question, “Where do I start?” came up, you might imagine that I had a few things to say.
But, as luck would have it, so did some of the other panelists. And two of them insisted on something that I have been thinking about ever since.
“You have to have a passion for your subject,” said one writer who wrote a book about his cat. Another, whose book chronicled his elementary school experiences, agreed (dare I say it?) passionately.
Heads in the audience nodded, clearly giving this some thought.
“I completely disagree,” I said. I was relieved when I heard those words come out of my mouth because my mind was saying, “That is total bullshit.”
If we are truly writing ambassadors, if we want to encourage people to write for their own enjoyment, education, therapy, well-being or immortality, we can’t go around making it harder by weighing them down with an albatross like passion.
Good Lord. If people can’t learn to reign in their passion, they’d never get anything done. Not well, anyway.
I once heard Garrison Keillor speak about writing and he said that if people want to write, the first thing they need to do is to the shake off their romantic ideas about writing and think of it more like a job—like cabinetry.
I love this analogy. Cabinetry is a learnable, teachable skill. Few of us are wizards of wood but most people, if they want to, can learn enough of the rudiments to build a some pretty useful objects—maybe not a reproduction Louis the XIV étagère, but probably a very respectable toy box or bookshelf.
Writing is just like that.
Few people can muster and maintain enough passion to motor through a memoir—unless there’s a kind of Viagra for that. And even if they could, until they ratchet down the excitement, how will they ever sit still long enough to get the words on the page? And what happens when the passion fizzles? Because it will. Passion is like that. It only sticks around as long as stuff is fun. When the work part sets in, passion takes a powder. Then what?
Some people think that writing happens because of magic. That’s why they’ve convinced themselves that they can’t do it—they don’t have the prerequisite magical powers (never mind the passion) to make the words appear on the page. While I will agree that something magical happens while we are writing, I will state unequivocally that it is an equal-opportunity sort of magic, one that will kick in for writers who have committed themselves to the work.
In writing, as in cabinetry, it’s work that gets the job done—not passion. Most of us, at some level, can work. So most of us, at some level, can write.
So, where to begin?
The trick is to make it manageable.
Begin with one small thing—an observation, a description, an experience, an opinion. Clear your desk and your head of everything you don’t need. Focus on that one thing, leaving everything else for another day. Don’t do it dreaming of a Pulitzer, a publisher or a paycheck. Do it because it’s something that you need to do.
Then toss your passion in the trash, roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Do it! You Can. And you should.