A Writer’s Life

My son sat across from me at the kitchen table with a notebook in front of him — Phineas on the cover, I think, or maybe it was Ferb — and a pen in his hand.

“What’cha doin’ there?” I asked him.

“I need to get this down.”

“Get what down?”

He looked at me and shrugged. Said, “I don’t know. I can’t get it right.”

I nodded. “I have that same problem all the time. Can I see?”

He slid the notebook across the table. Written on the page were three squiggly lines, the numbers 4 and 67, and a smiley face.

“Whaddaya think?” he asked.

“I think it’s brilliant.”

“I’m gonna be a writer when I grow up,” he said. “You know, like you.”

“Oh?”

“Yeppers. I like to write. Writin’s fun.”

I stared at him, tried to say something wise, and said instead, “Well, you have plenty of time to figure that out.”

The answer was good enough for him to accept. He finished his squiggles and then left me to ponder his words.

One day six years ago, something very special happened. My son sat down with a sheet of paper and a blue crayon, put the latter to the former, and made a waxy streak from the top left to the bottom right. Magic. And when he scurried off and came back later, he found more magic — that streak was still there.

And though the truth he’d stumbled upon then was incomprehensible, he’s been creeping closer to it ever since: if he wrote, he could leave something behind for others to remember. And it would be fun.

That, in a broad sense, is why many writers write. To plant a sign into the hard earth that says I Was Here. To know that to someone somewhere, what you say matters.

I had to admit that what my son said was true. Writing is fun. As frightening as a blank sheet of paper or an empty computer screen is, it is also marvelous. It is a canvas upon which to paint a story and a map by which to explore the world. A place where anything is possible.

But I also knew what he did not, at least not yet. Many times, writing is not fun. Writing is work. Difficult, exhausting, painful work. It takes courage to look genuinely, whether into the life around you or the heart within you, and more courage to share what you find there with others. To write is to bare you deepest self, naked of sham and disguise.

It is lonely work, a solitary walk through a land of little light and deep shadow. It is a life of irony in that by exposing yourself to the world, you inadvertently construct walls around you to keep the world away. And though you may indeed be surrounded by friends and loved ones, you know that in the end you are utterly and completely alone.

You write. They do not. That gulf is not easily bridged.

Because for many of us, writing is neither job nor hobby. It goes deeper, permeating every aspect of our lives. Every conversation we have, every face we see, every moment to which we bear witness, is seen through the lens of the page. We play our trade from the moment we wake until the moment we sleep. And even then, our dreams are often grist for the mill.

Success is fleeting. Failure is constant. You are turned away by agents and editors, the gatekeepers of your aspirations, and deemed unworthy of your dreams. You struggle with doubt and fear. You drown in desperation.

You face the agony of knowing that no matter what you manage to get down on the page, it will never be exactly what you want to say.

That’s a writer’s life. And I was left with this one question: was this the life I wanted for my son?

Yes.

Because despite it all, there is to me no greater pursuit in life than the search for meaning, and there is no better way to chart that search than with pen and paper as our compass.

To tell the world that we were here.

Post Author: Billy Coffey

Billy Coffey is the author of both Snow Day (2010) and Paper Angels (Nov. 2011), both by FaithWords. When he’s not writing, he can likely be found tromping through the woods near his home. He lives with his wife and children in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains.

37 Replies to “A Writer’s Life”

  1. About midway through, I was thinking ‘well said’. By the end, you actually gave me gooseflesh. It is encouraging and comforting to remember there are others out there who know how this odd journey feels, and when we’re gone, there will be still more. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Billy, you have an extraordinary gift of capturing heart imprints with words. One thing in particular resonated with me: writers see every moment through the lens of the page. Some days there just isn’t enough paper for the volume of film. Thanks for this wonderful, inspirational post.

  3. My six year-old son has been writing ‘like Mommy makes her books’ for the past year or so. His books are fully illustrated, bound (Mommy handles the stapler) and even have crayon versions of ISBN codes on the back. Since he has Asperger’s Syndrome, these creations are a sweet insight into his often-shielded mind. I love that he feels he has a means of expressing himself in a way that’s comfortable for him. The final line of your post, as it applies to my son, was particularly touching. Thanks,

  4. Love it. If we ever try to discourage our children from doing the hard things we do them a great disservice. And if he is truly going to follow in his father’s footsteps, you won’t be able to stop him anyway. Lovely post, Billy.

  5. Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that point others toward home… that’s what I always tell my children and others when asked about the purpose behind my words. You’re right… what isolation, difficulty, and yielding are involved with the writing life! What joy as well once the canvas begins to take shape! Writing, as of late, has been a deliberate choice for me. There’s very little “want to” to fuel my words. I am operating out of my will, believing that even in this habit of discipline, God is working his truth in me, through me, and eventually out of me for his purposes. It’s all I know to do when I don’t know what else to do.

    Keep to it, Billy. Tell your son to do the same.

    peace~elaine

  6. So, you’ve got TWO potential writers in the house? Praying for you…

    No one writes about the writing life quite like you, Billy. Another great story.

  7. Lovely sentiments. As someone late to catch the writing bug and try to capture all those people talking in my head, I think your description was dead on. And as I struggle, I appreciate that two of my adult sons are being motivated to begin their own writing journeys.

    At least they won’t have wasted 30 years before getting started.

  8. Of all the things my parents left behind, I cherish their words the most. My father was a frustrated and unpublished poet, whose work I treasure more than my most valuable possessions. My mother wasn’t a particularly creative writer, but she wrote personal notes on every card she sent, and an occasional full letter. Her handwriting was artistic, and as I witnessed it deteriorate in her last years until it became illegible, I treasured even more the little snippets she wrote. Of all the things I leave behind, I hope my words will mean the most. Thank you, Billy, for modeling a writer’s life to your son. Once he begins to tell his stories, he won’t be able to stop……

  9. Billy, you captured the essence of the writing life so eloquently. What a way you have with words–a real gift.

    You said, “You struggle with doubt and fear. You drown in desperation.” I’d love to see you elaborate on those two statements in your next post. How do you deal with those down times all writers encounter? I know you would have something insightful to share from the vast reservoir of wisdom that flows from your fingertips onto the page or screen.

  10. My daughter with Down’s Syndrome fell in love with her AlphaSmart over ten years ago. I actually ordered it for myself, but she clutched it to herself when it arrived. What’s a mother to do? Let her keep it, of course, and let her tell her stories. And she does. Amazing. Writing even transcends chromosomes.

  11. Your words always amaze and inspire me, Billy. I’ve wondered recently how others – non-writers – chart their search and desire for meaning. There are so many times when I simply must sit and write out what it is I’m experiencing. You know, organize those many thoughts and sometimes, distractions, into something a little more coherent. I’ve come to the conclusion, that although we writers appear to be a little lost at times, that in actuality, we’re the exact opposite. We are found in our writing.

    With a dad like you, I think your sweet son will definitely have a head start to finding his way through this world in the words he will write.

  12. Perfect, Billy. In this season of my writing life, I particularly like this part: “It is lonely work, a solitary walk through a land of little light and deep shadow. It is a life of irony in that by exposing yourself to the world, you inadvertently construct walls around you to keep the world away.” Sometimes it all feels too much. But for those who need our words most, it’s worth it.

  13. Billy, I read your blog before you were published and liked you then. I read Snow Day, your first novel, and liked you even better. Now I can’t wait to read your next one Paper Angels. Your encouragement is thoughtful and simple and wise. It isn’t busyed up with how-to’s and what-has-to-be-dones. Thanks for helping me to marvel and be still . . . if only for a while.

  14. Billy. Your words summed up the writing life truthfully and skillfully. I agree that in searching for the meaning in life, we use the pen and paper as our compass. Thank you for your insights and encouragement today.

  15. Hi Billy,
    Isn’t it amazing what squiggles can turn into? As you say, “Anything is possible.” I can’t think of a better gift to pass from father to son. Today my oldest tuns 22 and through pen and paper has found her way out of and through difficult situations. Anything is possible.

  16. When people ask me why I write, I struggle for the answer, because the usual cliches don’t fully express the magic. Perhaps only another writer fully understands how a blank page is “… a canvas upon which to paint a story and a map by which to explore the world.” You have an artist’s and explorer’s heart, and the gift of words to express what fills it. Your son is blessed to have you as both father and writing mentor. Then again, I expect you feel blessed to have him as your son and fellow writer. 🙂

  17. Absolutely loved this post! My favorite part: “And though the truth he’d stumbled upon then was incomprehensible, he’s been creeping closer to it ever since: if he wrote, he could leave something behind for others to remember. And it would be fun.”

    Amen. Thanks for sharing!

    Blessings!

  18. Billy– such an interesting piece as I wonder about my own two daughters and if they’ll pick up the pen and write. For me, your post highlighted the reasons I’m in this crazy writing journey.

    Now, back to work.

  19. Excellent, and eerie the way you put my thoughts into this. This is something to show a person who wants to know what it’s like to be a writer. In case any non-writers want to know that!

  20. I like your son’s attitude about writing–that he thinks of it as fun. And thanks for not telling him differently. Maybe we need to remember more often that writing is … can be fun. Stop moaning and groaning and bewailing all the trials and travails of being a writer. And sit back and remember the fun of it all. We’re creating … words.
    We’re creating worlds.

    Yeah. It’s fun.

  21. Powerful! Thanks for sharing this reflection on why we choose to ink our thoughts! Writing is never just a task for us, it is an expression of who we are, on paper, to leave the world the impression that we are or were here.

  22. I so enjoyed your post.You have touched my soul with you words. The Bible talks about words being vessel that are filled with everything we need to survive. Your words are full and overflowing in wisdom, peace, and love. God bless you and your family. I loved your post.

    Glenda Parker

  23. Lovely post. I guess if asked why I write I would have said, “Because I have to.” It’s so much easier to “fix” a fictional world than to deal with all the complexities of the real one. It’s actually a little frightening to me to think about people reading my novels long after I’m gone. Then again, at least nobody will be writing me to debate the issues I raised, either.

  24. Wonderfully written. It’s as if you were writing from my own heart. Every second, every face, every conversation, every everything I see is played out in my mind with words to shape it into a potential story, devotional, letter or blog. At times it is so grueling I have to remind myself it is a gift, a blessing to share with others and not a curse as I am hounded with the insatiable desire to write. Thank you for your inspiring encouragement. Writing brings with it a sensitivity to life that I would gladly pass on to my daughter and son.

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