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.

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