Talk Like a Writer

There’s nothing worse than when a non-writing friend or relative asks what you’ve been writing lately. That’s on the rare occasion when they ask at all. Regardless, you excitedly relate you’ve just finished that story, the one you’ve been struggling to find the perfect ending for. Or you proudly mention publication of an essay in that literary journal you’ve been trying to get into for years.

First, they get that far away, confused look. They seem uncomfortable.  You feel awkward. They don’t have any idea what to say next beyond the perfunctory “that’s great.”  You feel bad the subject even came up. They have the best of intentions; they want to come off as interested and supportive. But they are visiting a foreign land.

Writing is a sub-culture, complete with dialect, norms and mores, rituals, rites of passage and ceremony. For writers, we feel right at home; for non-writers it’s a maze that’s incomprehensible. I know well that feeling of not belonging because at the beginning of my writing life, I felt pretty much the same. Was I really a writer? How will I know when I really am one?

It’s been a long journey and one that started at age eleven when my essay was published in a student magazine.  I received $25.00 which was quite lot back in 1957. I wrote it in the voice of a book, asking students to treat me and my friends well. It never occurred to me that I was a writer. It was just a school assignment. Thinking of myself as a writer would come much later and be done in fits and starts.

I dipped in a little bit at a time and through the years I’ve learned the lingo and built myself a nice writing community. As years passed and especially in retirement, I’ve come to think of writing as more than a hobby but less than a job. I felt I’d really arrived when I set up my own website that now holds nearly two hundred of my pieces. I revel in the comments and likes from my followers.

Every summer I attend a week-long writing conference at UW – Madison. I call it my annual spa retreat. The instruction is top-notch and I always come away energized. It’s also great to be immersed in campus life and to make the most of the leisure built into the schedule. But the best thing is to spend time with other writers, writing, talking and thinking about writing. That’s only one of the opportunities that enhance my life.

There’s nothing like the din, the laughter, the chatter on the first day of any writing conference when everyone is getting to know each other. All you have to say to a stranger who happens to sit down next to you: “what are you writing?”  And off you go.

There’s nothing like the animated conversation that often ensues in writing group. These are the people you’ve shared your deepest secrets and yearnings with as you work out together the details of a story or essay. They sometimes become more of a family than what you have at home.

I recall attending my first poetry workshop.  I wasn’t sure I could call myself a poet. The class introduction said ‘bring six poems.” I counted. I had six, only six. I assumed that meant I qualified. Imagine me in a room with twelve life-long poets and an instructor who was a former Wisconsin poet laureate. They were kind and encouraging. Treated me like one of their own.

I now belong to a poetry group that meets once a month for reading and critiquing over breakfast. Out of that I write and post a poem every month on my wesite. I’ve learned the language and know I belong.

Writing is just one of many sub cultures out there. For example, I have a friend who belongs to a national chair caning organization. They have a board and regular meetings and everything. And language all their own. Also, think pottery, genealogy and barber shop quartets.  They’re everywhere. So, I no longer feel bad when a non-writing friend seems awkward. That’s because there’s probably somewhere in their life with some group of people where they belong, where they know the language and I don’t.

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