We save lives. Writing comes from a more mysterious place than any of us have words to describe. The ability to craft words that land across space and time into people’s hearts is a magical thing. That’s the closest thing to magic on earth we will ever see.
As writers, what we do is a sacred act. No writer can tell you where their ideas come from. We can talk about things like practice, showing up to let the words come out, and all kinds of woo woo; but none of us can articulate where the ideas come from. The truth is, all writing & art comes from a magical mysterious and place that we can’t consciously grasp or articulate.
I feel that it’s a disservice to that magic to cloud the beauty that we see in the words that we were fortunate enough to channel. It is a disservice to cloud that magic with worldly pursuit of fame, riches, big name awards, etc. Writing saves lives. What we do is so much more important than personal achievement. We are all here for a reason, and if writing is your reason, you better recognize the magnitude of this gift you’ve been blessed with.
I always wonder – why do people spend their lives perverting that magical, honorable work of saving souls by turning it into a vehicle for personal enrichment? Why cheapen this magical thing we ashare, these beautiful words that keep us going, keep us wanting to live and thrive and do all the wonderful things in this world?
We may not be doctors in fancy white lab coats, but we sure as hell save lives. And if you don’t believe me, you’ve never had a piece of literature that saved your life. You’ve never heard a story which changed how you see the world. If you’re a human, I refuse to believe that’s the case. You mean to tell me that you’ve never been soothed by a story filled with magic and wonder? As a writer, you must understand the gravity of the work we do, or you should walk away from this game right now. But this is not a game, this is serious business – not in the monetary sense, but in the sense that saving a life is an endeavor one cannot walk into haphazardly.
You want to be a good writer, a great writer? OK. Step one: throw your ego out the window. Step two: know that recognition is the antithesis of the work you need to be doing. Step three: keep your enemies close, and your friends closer. Step four: Don’t stop writing, no matter what. I didn’t say write every day. I said never stop writing, whatever that means to you. Step five: shun the outside world, along with most contemporary writing – especially if it doesn’t help you stay alive. Step six: submit your work for publishing and view the acceptances as failure.
Step seven: never promote your writing, and if you are forced to, then let it be with shame. Step eight: don’t read lists of things you need to become a great writer, including this one. Step nine: burn all your money and apply for food stamps. Step 10: sell that EBT for .50 on the dollar & use that money to buy pens and paper for to write with. Step 11: remember why you wanted to write the first time you wrote something; remember the magic of playing with language and how it made you feel whole and real and untouchable. Remember why you once wanted to do this if you want to know why you should keep doing this.
Don’t think you’re not a good enough writer? That’s cool, bro. But please stop competing. This is not a competition. This is charity. You are being charitable every time you write, and you should be grateful if you ever change a single life with something you wrote – especially your own. The trick of this is that you won’t know whose life you touch, or how. Your words will live in their psyche and give them motivation, or help them accept themselves, or stay alive. It’s all about staying alive.
Your job is not to seek validation from the mouths of others, even those who tell you your work has helped them. If it happens, for sure, count your blessings and give thanks. But if it doesn’t, please don’t seek it. Recognition and the pursuit of it are two things which often doom writers. When you start writing for external reasons, you are doomed as a writer. The moment you think you’ve made it, you’ve lost it all as a writer.
For the love of all that is Holy, do not, I repeat: DO NOT seek validation for your writing. Do not forget your reason for writing, your love of language. Do not delude yourself into thinking this ability to perceive the world and translate it into thought-words makes you better than anyone. Hubris will tear you down, always.
Don’t smile on stage, pretending to be humble and grateful when you secretly feel entitled to those so-called achievements, that you somehow earned that praise. You are merely a vessel, a tool. And you are nothing without a purpose. Your purpose is not to sell your soul for writing fame, the cheapest and most ephemeral of all fames. Your purpose is to write and that is more than enough of a purpose.
If you do become famous doing this, stay true to your origins. Don’t forget that 11-year-old child who wrote their first science fiction story and ran excitedly to show anyone who would listen. Don’t forget that feeling, no matter how far removed from it you are.
Don’t forget what it feels like to sit in a coffee shop at 3pm, sunrays slanting sideways through bay windows, mahogany desk under your writing pad, nursing a London Fog and smiling, content with the world because you are doing the one thing which brings you happiness in this life more than nearly anything else. You are writing & reading & living & breathing.
You write, because the act of writing is fulfilling in and of itself. The results are almost beside the point. You write because you are compelled, and because it’s the one place in this world you don’t have to explain anything. You write because you know how many books have touched you, changed you, saved you.
You write in honor of every writer who’s ever helped you, in person or otherwise. You write to reach future generations of readers and writers whose lives will be impacted in some small way by your heartwork, your inkwork. You write because it is enough just to write and smile and cry and you will always write because it is everything you will ever need.
Said Shaiye is a Somali writer who calls Minneapolis home. He is an MFA Candidate & Graduate Instructor at the University of Minnesota. He has had work published or is forthcoming in Diagram, Rigorous, Dreginald, New South and Muslim American Writers at Home Anthology. His debut book, Are You Borg Now?, is forthcoming from Really Serious Literature. Find him at www.saidshaiye.com.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.