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What is a Writer?
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Timothy Bartel

"A writer is someone who has written today."

When I first heard this maxim back in graduate school, I thought it had the ring of obvious truth. I used to tell it to all my students: "A writer is someone who has written today!" It would usually be met with a wide-eyed accusatory gasp, as if my students were saying: Hey! How dare you call me out like this? I liked it -- and I still like it -- more as a self-admonition than an admonition of anyone else. It was a way of saying: You call yourself a writer, but have you written today, Bartel? If not, get on it already!

A year or two ago, however, a friend of mine who is an excellent writer pointed out the limited usage of my​ maxim. Yes, they said, it may motivate one to write something each day, but there are plenty of writers who don't write every day, and plenty of great instances where a writing-free day or week may be necessary in order to write one's best work. Walking silently through the park, praying at a vespers service, making curry, reading to your child: these are activities that are not only more important than writing, they give us something to write about. If all we do is write, then perhaps we may end up with nothing to write about. In fact, we writers can do with the reminder that plenty of humans have lived fulfilling, admirable lives without ever having written at all. 

That writing is inessential to happiness is a truth that can be difficult for the writer to admit. Perhaps this is true of every profession, but writers may be uniquely insufferable in their resistance to it. We agonize about our work in ways that feel performative and affected to others. Can writing a novel really cause that much inner turmoil? Don't ask the novelist, they will hardly know whether their answer is genuine or not.

Part of this may simply be inflated self-regard, but part of it is, I believe, the writer's inner enjoyment of the struggle to write. The runner loves the struggle to shave another few seconds off their mile, the chef enjoys the struggle to render the croissant layers just right, and the writer loves the struggle to order words into resonant, meaningful structures. Or maybe the writer is more like the lover, who revels in the ache of heart's-desire. 

Longfellow, who I cannot write long without mentioning, wrote very honestly about his desires for literary achievement in his sonnet Mezzo Cammin:

Half of my life is gone, and I have let 
The years slip from me and have not fulfilled 
The aspiration of my youth, to build 
Some tower of song with lofty parapet. 
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret 
Of restless passions that would not be stilled, 
But sorrow, and a care that almost killed
Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,— 
A city in the twilight dim and vast, 
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,— 
And hear above me on the autumnal blast
The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.


Longfellow wrote this when he was thirty-five, while on a holiday in Europe. Though scholars now think of it as one of his most important poems, Longfellow himself did not even seek to publish it, as he felt it was too honest about his private fears and motivations. It certainly strikes us as honest, and it makes no qualms about the poet's main motivation: he wants to write a masterpiece, a "tower of song". But life has gotten in the way: "sorrow and a care that almost killed." More ominously, the end is coming for him, and we are left with the sound of death echoing in the ears of the journeying poet. Will he construct his masterpiece? Will he fulfill the aspiration of his youth?

Why did I so like the maxim that "a writer is someone who has written today?" Partly, I think, because it jabbed in a productive way at that creative ache in me: are you still involved in the struggle? It said. Have you strived to fulfill your aspirations, to build the tower of song?

I believe that if there is a likeness between the Christian life and the discipline of writing, it is that both are interested in the slow, intentional shaping of a raw material. The Desert Fathers and Mothers speak of the Christian life as one of ascesis, of continual falling down and getting back up, of patient, gradual refinement of the heart. At any point, the monk can be knocked back many paces in the path to holiness, but nevertheless, through the power of the Holy Spirit, he can get up again and keep moving forward. The monk may act as editor of acts: what discipline derailed last night? How can I recompose it with the morning? Just so, the writer wakes each day to words: what will she make of them this time? Will her efforts at arrangement move them closer to beauty, to truth, to a whole and vibrant structure? Not always: a novelist once told me that they were almost finished writing a novel when their computer crashed. On rebooting the computer, they found their novel was completely gone, and they had to decide whether to abandon the story, or start it all over from the beginning. They abandoned it, I believe.

Maybe this is enough: that the whole enterprise of writing is an image of sanctification, that what we learn from being writers can help us, if ever so slightly, have a better perspective on spiritual struggle and progress: If you thought writing a good play was hard, try living a holy life! And yet I want them to be more intertwined. I want, even though it sounds almost petty to admit it, the act of writing to be a part of my spiritual endeavor. I want it to be an ascesis, though I too often allow it to be an indulgence. But when I have been too easy on my writing, when I have not properly shaped, properly struggled toward beauty, toward truth, I am called to the work of editing: how can I make this squat, misshapen line, stanza, paragraph, into something more elegant, more disciplined, more polished to catch the far, sharp ray of goodness and refract it toward the reading world?

"The writer is someone who has edited today." Maybe that's a better way to say it, or maybe that too is still mistaken. Perhaps we writers should stop worrying about whether we're writers, or how to define ourselves. It is enough to say: I have a self -- not of myself -- and now I'm asked what I will make of it.