The toughest question I ever got during a Q&A after a speaking engagement, I got from a college professor. I ducked it at the moment, but I’ve been pondering it ever since.
With increasing outrage.
“You make so many great references in your writing,” he said, then asked, “How do you think of all those things?”
As if I would tell you, and a whole class of would-be professional competitors!
Because the ability to “think of all those things,” to me, is what being a writer is, once you learn the difference between a noun and a verb. It’s also the only thing I have.
Depending on what you’re trying to say, to whom, in which medium, in what tone and with how much gravitas, you think of something Benjamin Disraeli said on his death bed, or something your little sister said when she was injured in ballet. You think of the night your mother died, or the time you got hit in the eye with a baseball. You think of Susan B. Anthony, or Ruth B. Ginsburg.
(Or, you don’t.)
I do. One post of mine last week contained eight allusions in 15 paragraphs. I probably quote my parents too much, my dad especially. And I don’t quote Mr. Disraeli nearly enough. But I do think of apt things. Or apt things think of me, and visit my typing fingers at just the right time. (Thanks, apt things!)
My friend Brian Jenner, the founder of the U.K. Speechwriter’s Guild and the European Speechwriter Network has a new book about the ancient art of “commonplacing,” which purports to tell you “how to record, retrieve and remember what inspires you.” I know Brian believes in this and practices it himself. But to my way of thinking, he might as well write a book teaching me how to drink the ocean without taking a piss.
It seems to me that if you can access all your experience living and reading and put it into your writing in compelling ways, you’re a writer. That’s what a writer is. In many cases, mine perhaps among them, that’s all a writer is.
And it seems to me there are so many things a typical writer is not, including a useful hammerer of nails, adder of double digits, scrambled-egg chef, or regular bill-payer—it seems churlish-adjacent to ask a writer to share the one innate skill she or he possesses, that you don’t.
And anyway, I have no idea how I think of all those things.