Beware of the bug

Helga’s Post #2: Three more weeks until the Surrey International Writers’ Conference opens. I decided to splurge again this year, having skipped last year’s. This will be my fifth time as I join somewhere between 700 to 900 writers and wannabe published authors, taking over the Sheraton for three days and nights. The vast majority are women, and they come from all over the continent. What I like best about the conference is talking to as many writers as possible. I like to find out what they write, and more importantly, WHY they write. There is one recurring theme: they all have a story inside them, bursting to be told. Often there is something autobiographical from their own childhood. And as I ask the question of WHY they write, they look at me as if I’m speaking Swahili.

“Because I HAVE to write. I have no choice,” is the resounding answer.

I understand. I don’t have a choice either. Oh, I’ve toyed with the idea to stop writing. There are so many reasons. First, the money. This is what my friends (in fairness, not all) mention when they offer advice. “Why do you spend all this time on something you don’t get paid for? You could do consulting. You’ll never get published. You know the statistics.” La-di-da. Or, some more supportive comments, “Why not write a ‘How-To’ book, you’ll at least get paid something. Or write magazine articles. But a novel?”

Well, thanks for cheering me on. Then there is the issue of ergonomics, or health. “You sit at the computer with shoulders hunched for hours and hours every day. That’s unhealthy. You should go to the gym.” To that I can relate. While my friends work out and tone their bodies, I am getting soft and bigger around the midriff, while my leg muscles seem to be on a perennial vacation. This is one argument that defies arguing. My friends are right. But at least this is something I do have control over. All it takes is to become more disciplined and a better time manager (Easy, huh?)

So the bottom line: If I stop writing, I could earn real money (since my chances for publishing are infinitesimal according to my critics), and I could have my (somewhat) toned body back. Makes sense, no?

The problem is this: Once the bug has bitten, it’s in your system. It demands center stage in your life. It won’t let you go. Ever. Like the chicken pox virus. It lives in your body forever. I got smitten early, like my friend Joe. I still lived in Vienna with my family.

Vienna – my first hometown

In Grade Two, we had to write our first essay, ‘Der erste Schnee’ (The First Snow). I remember it well. The teacher announced she would read the best one to the class. To my immense shock, she read mine. Bingo! The writing bug had stung. I decided to explore this a bit more. When I had to stay in bed after a foot surgery, I wrote my first novel. Taking clues from Pippi Longstocking, I wrote an illustrated story about a spy and a girl detective (my love for the genre has stayed with me over the years. More of that in future posts). I was eight or nine years old. And so on. Essay after essay landed me high grades in writing (to the detriment of grades in math and science). My teachers encouraged me to become a journalist.

I became a voracious reader. From children’s books, to Young Adult, to Adult books. I started reading novels in English, becoming proficient in the language. Graham Greene, Daphne de Maurier, John Steinbeck, W.Somerset Maugham, these were the authors in vogue at the time. One novel that left a particular impression was The Citadel by Scottish writer A.J. Cronin. I learned later that he was a prodigiously fast writer, averaging 5,000 words a day, meticulously planning the details of his plots in advance (listen up, my writing buddies).

I would like to share an anecdote about my passion for books and how it led to writing. Around Grade Three, my best friend said something to me that stung. Hard. It possibly even changed my future:

“You must be sad, being the ugliest girl in class”.

While she was no longer my best friend from that moment onwards, I did believe her. What to do? After nights crying myself to sleep, I decided, well, at least I will always have books. Nobody can take those away from me, ugly or not. The local library became my second home.

And from reading books to writing them is really just one small step.

But for all of us, life gets in the way. Remember how it goes when you’re a teenager? Obsessing over clothes, hair and makeup, first boyfriend, first kiss, second boyfriend, first heartbreak, all that good stuff. My former best friend’s words were long forgotten. Writing landed on the back burner.

But the passion for the craft came roaring back. Later in life. Much later.

6 thoughts on “Beware of the bug

  1. Love it. So, in between writing, and especially when you have a problem with the story, go for a walk. You kill (or at least stun) two birds this way – you get your exercise, thus keeping your fit friends mollified (and hopefully shut up), you get out in the fresh air, and you keep your conscious mind off the book, thereby letting your subconscious grapple with the problem, and, hopefully, surprising you partway through the walk, or a little after, with a snippet of dialogue, or a scene, or maybe just one of your characters going about his or her life in the corner of your mind. It helps if you have an upper mind distraction while you walk – be sure to engage with the scenery, listen to the sounds, think about the people you encounter and the things you see. I find listening to music helps – check out my blog posts (yeah, it’s a kind of plug, but I’m also serious) Music and the muse ( and the one right after that – On my walk (yeah, this is relevant, but it’s also because I don’t often compose poetry while I walk and I’m kinda tickled by it. This more or less composed itself – as the quality probably attests), but it was one of my more memorable walks and while it didn’t solve any problems, it does show you how my upper mind was busy while the subconscious was totally absorbed on something else. ( Have a great time at Surrey – I always enjoyed those.

    • Thanks, Bev. Your blog on music rings so true. The protagonist in my first novel is a jazz musician, so similar to yours. I appreciate your thoughtful feedback.

  2. Dear Helga, I know what you mean with as you call it bitten by the bug. I call it passion. You may not make money. That does not matter. If it makes you happy it’s all worth it!

  3. I know intimately of the bug you wrote about! Sean was bitten when he was a boy & wouldn’t be the same person if he didn’t write. He’s told me that you are a very talented writer & your voice comes thru your writing. I can feel that in this post. Embrace the “bug” Helga!

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