Do you consider yourself a literary type? Do you think that storytelling is as important to the human soul as any nourishment is to the body? Do you find yourself going through life consistently wanting to describe your feelings and experiences as thoughtfully and as thoroughly as possible? Most importantly, do you actually write? Here are six telltale signs that you were destined to have a love-hate relationship with the literary craft, and an unceasing compulsion to put your thoughts on paper.
Do you ever find yourself in the middle of a conversation when it suddenly feels like you’re floating above yourself, watching the whole thing unfold? Has that resulted in an awkward pause, as your interlocutor becomes increasingly irate at your obvious lack of attention or respect for what they have to say? Maybe you’ve failed to be entirely in the moment, even in intimate situations, because you’re thinking to yourself, “This is it!” How am I going to describe this later!?” Believe me, this can backfire very quickly. Having a deep and consistent appreciation for the process of life — even when it tosses you around — and a desire to accurately portray that process in language is a sign that writing is the creative outlet for you.
If you don’t like to read, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you: you probably won’t like writing much either. While reading and writing don’t always go hand in hand, most of the best writers have had their own literary heroes. For Thomas Hardy, it was William Wordsworth and Charles Dickens. For Ernest Hemingway, it was Sherwood Anderson and Mark Twain. How could you ever appreciate your own writing if you’ve never been completely transfixed by the words of another? Just as slogging through the great tomes of literature comes with a sense of pride and fulfillment, writing is a grueling and often agonizing process that is unbelievably rewarding when doggedly pursued.
I know, I know: alone time and privacy are essential elements of a healthy life for all individuals. However, if you are the writerly type, you need some serious time to stew. It could be that, like most of the population, you need time to process your feelings, sort through the events of the day, and ground yourself in a space that is completely your own. However, a percentage of us will go even further, analyzing and over-analyzing every utterance and every social connection within the universe of our friends and relatives. I would hazard to guess that for many writers, this analysis isn’t even so much about the consequences for their personal lives, but instead, comes from an utter fascination with the way that people connect and communicate with one another.
This is such a common and irritating trope of literary identity that it provokes seemingly inexhaustible contempt from social critics and comedians bent on skewering self-appointed writers. We all had that insufferable friend in high school and college who used to walk around with a Moleskine notebook and offer such banalities as, “oh, I just like to observe,” and, “I like to have this with me just in case I think of something.” I don’t think I ever witnessed that individual put pen to paper. Listen, what makes a writer is the activity of writing. If you don’t actually write, you are not a writer. However, the underlying truth is that life is material, and it’s sometimes hard to push pause and organize your experiences into words.
Whether you come from a family or ethnic background with a strong bardic or oral tradition, or just like to hold court around a pitcher of beer, a love of telling stories is essential to enjoying the craft of writing. You want to give your audience a true sense of yourself, or of your characters, including all of their neuroses and insecurities. If you’re like me, you get really frustrated when you tell a story and you fail to really do it justice or evoke a sense of what actually happened. Jonathan Ames feels the same way; skip to about the 11th minute of the following clip to hear him talk about the power of storytelling.
Remember those neuroses and insecurities? Writers seem to have more of them, and have them with more intensity, than the average person. Fortunately, writing can be a useful tool in sorting through them. While the late David Foster Wallace often argued (and, sadly, proved) that writing can sometimes stir up demons rather than exorcise them, writing can be a wonderful form of therapy. It gives you the chance to feel stronger and more in command of your life, and to learn things about yourself that only come to light once the words begin to flow. If you’re like me, however, your favorite thing about writing is the window it provides into human fellowship, and the delight of common notions and feelings. I think a quotation about reading and writing by English teacher Douglas Hector in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys describes this best: "The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours."