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.
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.