Writing is not an occupation one chooses; it is an occupation that chooses us. Still, the mark of a writer is not necessarily how prodigious his output, because true writers find that it takes a lot of work to reach the place where one feels confident enough to put thoughts onto paper.
The superb Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood revealed many of her thoughts in answer to the question, "Why do you write?" and they form part of the book "The Writer on Her Work, Volume II," edited and with an introduction by Janet Sternburg (W.W. Norton; 1991).Wrote Atwood, "You learn to write by reading and writing, writing and reading. As a craft it's acquired through the apprentice system, but you choose your own teachers. Sometimes they're alive, sometimes dead.
"As a vocation, it involves the laying on of hands . . . sometimes you'll feel you're speaking for (human society), sometimes - when it's taken an unjust form - against it. . . . Either way, the pressures on you will be intense."
Try to remember those words as you read this first letter:
Dear Lois: My wife and I have been married for 32 years, and I have lost her.
No, it's not another man, but at this late date (she is 53), she has decided she was meant to be a writer. Now she goes to what she calls "a room of her own," and she says she is "working." She's alone, so I know there's no one else involved. I am retired and do a little volunteer work at a senior center. I don't think my wife is into drugs or anything dangerous, but I can't reach her anymore. I thought we had a close relationship, but when I start talking to her, she'll say things like, "Oh, I just had an idea" - and she'll disappear for an hour or two. Our two grown daughters just laugh when I try to talk to them about this. They think I should leave her alone and she'll outgrow it because she hasn't had anything published. But I don't want to wait. How can I reach her?
- Neglected Husband
Dear NH: Maybe the first way to reach her is to talk about her work. Since, as Margaret Atwood reminds us, writers read and write, begin by asking what she's reading. Start sharing books and ideas with her, but also understand that she may, for the first time in her life, feel free to spend time on her own development, to explore things that truly interest just her.
And don't judge her by the amount of her output. Margaret Mitchell, who wrote most of her life, published only one book, but it was titled "Gone With the Wind." There are many stories of wives and mothers with pent-up dreams who begin to live their fantasies once they are relieved of everyday parenting.
Encourage her, support her, and perhaps she'll open the door and let you share some of her ideas. I'll remind you that every writer needs an editor!
Dear Lois: This is a letter for the mothers of teenage daughters. Been there, done that! My daughter, now 34, was stubborn, opinionated and, no matter what I said, she disagreed with me. But she was an honor student and abided by her curfews even when she didn't agree with them. She grumbled . . . spent a great deal of time in her room (or I might have killed her).
She graduated from FSU, went to graduate school, passed the CPA exam on her first try and worked for one of the Big Eight accounting firms. Today she is a happily married stay-at-home mom with two adorable children (after all, they are my grandchildren). I tell her often what a good mom she is, except for the fact that she married a man from Seattle and took my grandchildren there.
She says that now that she is a mother, she realizes why I did so many of the things she didn't want to accept. We end every conversation with "I love you" because you can never tell your parents or children too many times that you love them. The funny thing is that now, when she yells at her kids, she stops and says, "Oh my gosh, I sound just like my mother. I'm turning into her."
- Marge Sutton, Treasure Island, Fla.
Dear Marge: When you're living through the terrible teens (whether you're a mom or a kid), you're sure the bad stuff will never end. The good news is that it does end. In your case life got even better, and the great news is that you know it! Keep smilin'.