When I Learned To Write

I suppose I started writing a decade ago; my debut a foray into the shadowy world of the memoir (unpublished – thank God). I wanted to talk about the suffering: war, drought, famine. Violence. Central America, the Congo, – Uganda. Not a platform piece – not exactly. But to tell my version of what I saw, how it happened and how I found meaning away from the vapid, self-serving aggrandizement of the normal aid worker story. As I saw it – it was to be neither pretentiously self-elevating; like “Three Cups of Tea”. Nor was it to be self-mockery and debasement like “Emergency Sex”. It wasn’t even a tell-all such as “Lords of Poverty” – sitting in infantile judgement upon the efforts of thousands, tens of thousands of people who risk their lives to extend a helping hand in a hurting world. It was my attempt to answer the question “Why – why does this keep happening, and why should we care?” We – my people. Maybe it was a platform piece after all, well sort of. Anyway, upon reading my first draft, my editor, shaking her head, said, “This isn’t gonna work.”

Fastened deliberately on the manuscript still, in a yellow sticky tab, is a note that reads “Remember, good writing trumps all.”

Good writing trumps all.

Nonplussed, I journeyed down life’s paths – and as I did I slowly explored the idea of fiction. Literary fiction specifically. Magical realist literary fiction actually. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Isabel Allende. I wrote my first novel – found a publisher, put it out there and moved on. “Good writing trumps all.”

“How to know if the writing is good?” I shrug.

Home again – Washington. Fellowships, political campaigns, expert briefs, policy documents and opeds. Sawdust sprinkled liberally over cardboard. At first I tried to add salt or sauce, but it was not welcome. “People in power won’t read that.” Soon – but belatedly – I realized that writing for and by the Washington apparatus adheres to a different standard. It’s not “good writing” that trumps, but instead only writing that answers the question “Who the hell are you, and why should I care?” To answer these, people frenetically seek to be somebody, anybody; finding their answer in the common currency of that city – information. An untold tale. An uncommonly important tidbit – imprisoned behind an impenetrable wall through which seep only flashing glimpses for the salivating beast. Facts, numbers, surveys. Not knowledge – knowledge requires wisdom. Data points require only contacts. Those I had. I was an expert.

I had stumbled. Not a bad thing per se I suppose – for those seeking power. But for me, seeking a reckoning, the worst. Amateur writing – peddling figures for free in online heralds looking for an audience. You get what you pay for.

Then life took me again down another road. A harder one: and unemployed I wrote my second novel. It is better, perhaps, because it is infused with my melancholy; a story of destitution but somehow hopeful – real hope which springs eternal and invincible. Buoyed I moved on again, and finding myself in the Sahara I wrote my third novel.

Porfirio Cover

By this time I was more relaxed, confident. Comfortable in my own skin. I was a writer.

I started to blog – a venue I now enjoy immensely. An unpaid column – alas. I could be a columnist – would enjoy it I think (any offers are welcome). Columns are all about good writing; pieces permeated with our experiences – ourselves. Timidly I began, but gaining in confidence – yet still with one mistake. I was still trying to teach and inform – not connect. “Platforms for our nasty little personalities,” Ayn Rand once wrote.

Meanwhile, slowly my heart was breaking – too many years dealing with the darkness will do that. Dare I talk about that? Dare I become weak? Dare I say what I really thought? I had to try – in my hunt for solace and freedom – writing was to become both the vehicle and the avenue. Chased from my home – more trials – more heartache.

But finally, I think, I found my voice.

So what have I learned? “There are three rules to writing (…). Unfortunately nobody knows what they are,” was W. Somerset Maugham’s advice. How is it that one writes? Here goes, my attempt at explanation, at connecting. First – you must feel it. As Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Men who are afraid to be vulnerable, to weep – to rage and to sorrow and to yearn – cannot write. They can inform maybe; put their ridiculous little ideas on some online platform in the search of “clicks” and “likes” which will prove they are important – tiny electronic endorsements of their insecurity. They are unimportant against those of us who expose ourselves, who go where it is unsafe – who “say too much”. Also do not try and teach; nobody wants to learn – and nobody cares about your lessons. But your characters… Ah, that’s different. Give them voices and fears, trials and tribulations – as you have. Let them learn – as you have learned. Make them human – as you are human. And let their journeys mirror your own. Then you will be true to them, and they to you. Don’t shape your story around a platform, an idea – let those come organically from one of your characters in their moment of greatest wretchedness. And you must always write for yourself – because you love it. Fill your blog not in a frenetic search for virality (although it’s fun when that happens); but because when it’s there, under your fingers as a black-letter portrait of your consciousness you feel at rest. Write with all your senses – we humans are tactile creatures. We smell and hear and see and touch. Use all those; transmitting them to your readers through words. Make them yearn and hunger and cry. And write always. Not in bursts of inspiration followed by the agony of the blank whiteness that mocks. But in a steady drumbeat like rain upon a tin roof. Don’t write to get it over with. Most people want to have written a novel; but they don’t want to write a novel. You know those people – you know them by their work; it is hurried and facile. J.K. Rowling once said, “There is literally nothing on the business side that I wouldn’t sacrifice in a heartbeat for an extra hour of writing.”

Most importantly, to write you must read. If you don’t like to read – if you can’t find the time, you will never be a writer.

You may feel free to start with my books if you so choose.

After all that, you might find that you will have learned to write.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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2 Responses to When I Learned To Write

  1. michaelkubly says:

    I love this article. Full of very good points and wisdom. Thank you.


  2. Valuable pep talk to many.


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