I remember, in my twenties, coming across the idea that to be a “writer” one had to possess wisdom or knowledge or wonder.
It’s possible that I read this somewhere smart, that one of my favorite authors suggested it in an interview. It’s also possible that I cobbled together this list of required qualities from a variety of sources as I worked my way through stacks of brilliant novels and an undergraduate degree in creative writing. Either way, I remember liking the prescriptive nature of it, the gospel quality it had—which was no consolation, for at the time I was certain that I didn’t have any wisdom or knowledge to offer anyone. I was a high school dropout, a failed actress, and, if I’m being honest, I was, as my friends lovingly described it, “a bit dippy.”
What I did have going for me was that I was wildly interested in the world. Because I’d had a miserable time in high school I’d left at seventeen, packing up and moving to Ireland to wait tables. There, in Dublin, I shopped in flea markets and used-book stores, went to plays and concerts, and bused out to different parts of the country whenever I had a few days off.
I found history everywhere—in the old buildings, the creaking doors of the pubs, in storytelling traditions that went back hundreds of years. At my local post office there was a bullet hole in the wall from the 1916 Easter Rising that I’d touch with my finger every time I went to mail a letter home. Suddenly there I was: totally in love with the world, walking around like someone who’d never seen color before—the whole of existence electric.
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So I decided, when I was back in Canada in my twenties, that if I had something to offer as a writer it would be wonder; that I would take the time to look at the world, at people, places, and things in a way others might not have time for. I finished my degree, did another, began publishing stories and poems, and eventually started teaching creative writing as a sessional instructor at the university where I’d done my undergraduate program.
If the “qualities of a writer” conversation arose in class (which it sometimes did), I would sagely suggest that developing wisdom, knowledge, or wonder might be a wise tactic—though increasingly I delivered the advice in the hope that a discerning third- or fourth-year student would challenge the presumption that there could ever be a set of prerequisites for this thing called writing.
And then, at some point in my thirties, back briefly in Ireland, I spent a day at the National Gallery. There was a retrospective on one of my favorite painters, Jack Yeats (brother to the famous poet William Butler). I remember that they’d placed panels beside the art containing extracts from Jack Yeats’s letters and journals.
In one of them he suggested that he thought one of the necessary qualities in a painter was affection—affection for the subject, which, in his case, meant the countryside, the people, the horses galloping in the races. I was stunned by this idea because it felt so obvious. I remember thinking how wholly necessary affection is—for survival, for sustenance, for peace, for pleasure.
Yeats’s notion of the importance of affection reminded me that there is no recipe for becoming this thing called a writer. Wisdom is amazing (my mentor Dermot Healy had wisdom in spades), knowledge is outstanding, wonder is still one of the great pleasures of my life, but these qualities are not necessarily better than affection, or attention to detail, or care, desire, rebelliousness, humility, a sense of injustice, frustration, tenacity, or a simple love of words.
I find it funny that The World Before Us is partly about challenging notions of fixity—the firm line we draw between the past and the present, the living and the dead—but that somehow I’d started writing the book holding on to a fixed idea of the qualities I needed to have as a writer. We all have stories to tell, each one of us. And while lists of the kinds of qualities required in a writer will always arise—because writers often get asked such questions and the tendency is to want to be helpful—these lists aren’t blueprints.
I remember Margaret Atwood once suggesting that talent, hard work, and passion were the necessities. And then, after a pause, she added luck. Alice Munro, when asked to identify the point in her career when she started to call herself a writer, shook her head and said that she didn’t see her vocation that way, that rather than call herself a writer she always just thought that there may be “some things that have to be written by me.”
This is the best answer of all because it means getting to be exactly who you already are and telling the story the way only you can tell it.
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