The Portrait of a Writer

I have never met a clean writer.

I’m not saying they don’t exist, but I’ve never been to a writer friend’s home where their room or their workspace isn’t a complete, total, utter mess.

And I love it.

During adolescence, my mother would always get so mad at me for how dirty my room would be. I would toss my clothes around, leave my papers strewn everywhere, play hop scotch to avoid breaking CD and movie cases. What she never understood was the mess gave me purpose in its own way. When things are organized, put away, hidden, I lose inspiration. When things are strewn about and out of place, I know exactly where they are, and I’m able to look at them and utilize them in the stories I write.

I think this idea stems back to what I was saying in my first post, What is an artist?, that “normal” people don’t understand the creative mind’s process. It’s complex. It’s unique. Every mind is. That’s what makes us all individual.

While my mother never understood how I could function in such a mess, I never lost my homework, I never got bad grades, and I was always able to lay a structure to my life. Somehow, for me, being in a mess made me focus. For a long time, I’ve been tinkering with the idea of “perfection.” When it comes to something like cleaning, once I start I don’t stop. I want everything to be perfect. Bleached. Dust-free. Spotless. But it never works out that way.

I’ve never met a writer who didn’t like coffee.

Again, it’s a generic stereotype and not every writer does drink coffee, but it seems like that’s the go-to drink for every writer I’ve come in contact with. There’s something about brewing that cup in your kitchen and sitting in your living room or at your dining room table and immersing yourself in your own world while you get down on that cup of Joe. My cup is red. In Starbucks lingo it would classify as a “Venti.” I used to work at Seattle’s Best in Borders, which is actually where this cup is from. When Borders shut down, I took it for a keepsake. Now every day it sits next to me. I’m taking swigs between sentences even now.

There’s something about going to a coffee shop and hearing the espresso machine and listening to the conversations around you to use as inspiration. The difference between a coffee shop and your own home is the experience. In your own home you keep yourself distanced from the outside world (which is sometimes exactly what you need in order to focus and produce your best work.) On the flip side, going into public and using interactions as guidance adds a sense of realness to your writing.

Writers have a tendency to study people in ways I’ve never seen from anyone else. We study people because we want to use the personality traits in them that we either like or don’t like to make characters based on them. Not every writer will admit to that, but every character usually stems from character traits of a friend or loved one.

I’ve never met a writer who didn’t eavesdrop.

Guilty as charged. I’ve sent some work off to editors before, or just asked people I really trusted for valuable feedback. When it came to dialogue, the thing I’ve heard most is “I don’t hear (people in a specific age group) talking like that.” My first novel, called Immortality Awaits, is about a group of college seniors, about 22-23 years old, who are called to fulfill their destiny by becoming virtually indestructible. I wrote the first draft of the novel when I was 18, finished the second draft when I was 19, and sent it off to my first editor at 21.

That was exactly what she told me.

Since I was writing in an age group for people who were older than me, I didn’t understand a lot of the ways people in that age group worked. Being 18 and freshly graduated from high school and excited to “finally be free” (how easy it would be now to just live at my parents and let them still take care of me, right?) I didn’t think about the way people in the real world really worked. (Say that sentence out loud. Then repeat it a few times quickly.) This what what started my eavesdropping business (and I say business because I’m a pro. I took sign language on purpose so I could even eavesdrop on deaf people. They have such amazing conversations, it’s out of this world.)

By listening to conversations between people of a certain age group or observing the different ways people interacted, I was able to start adding more realness and depth to my characters. Now, being 23, when someone tells me they don’t hear “a 23-year-old talk like that,” I’m able to correct them. I’ve done my fair share of studying. I’m not an expert in dialogue, by all means, but I at least grasp the concept of how important it is to add that realness and add that depth to every character, big or small, because that’s what makes the story addicting. Plot line and story structure be damned next to character depth and dialogue flow. That’s what really keeps your reader interested.

I have never met a writer who doesn’t have insomnia.

“What if I had them do that instead?” “What if they said this, how would that other character react?” “How can I make these plotlines connect?” “Is this going to be a good story?” “Oh, I like that, I should write that down.”

Anyone get thoughts like these when you’re trying to sleep? It’s obnoxious, it really is, but it’s important. The day is busy. Things like bills, cleaning, eating, shopping, showering, working, socializing, etc… fill your head space. When you sit down to write, you have thoughts and ideas already. I read an article once about writers, and it said that you know you have a good story, something valuable and worth your time, when you lose sleep over it. It’s a story that demands to be written. It doesn’t want to stay in your cognitive space anymore. It wants to be told.

The two best places I think are in the shower and in my bed when I try to sleep (and I say try because I have insomnia pretty bad.) That’s where I come up with character traits. Those are where my plotlines come from. Those are two of the places I know I can be alone with no interruptions. Sometimes the story is screaming so loud in my head I can’t go to sleep. I have to wake myself back up and write it. The story has a mind of its own, and in a sense after a while it starts to own you. Everything looks like a scene you can incorporate. Every person becomes someone you can add. Every intense, uncommon situation feels unreal, scripted.

Writers are a very unique brand of people. We share a lot of commonalities, but also a lot of differences. Yet the commonalities and differences are always what link us together. We’re an unspoken family. An endangered species. But without us, the world for you “normal” people would lack imagination and creativity. There would be no Harry Potter. There would be no Lord of the Rings. No Dracula. No Narnia. No Stephen King. No Dean Koontz. No Twilight (although I can’t say I’d be too sad about that. Sorry to offend.) No Hunger Games. No romance novels. No humorous anecdotes. We’re needed, we’re underestimated, but at the core of everything…

We’re awesome.


Author’s Note:

I’d like to take a brief moment to thank anyone who’s liked or followed either this blog or my Jensen blog. I’ve actually learned something from each of you (because I do go check out everyone’s blog.) All of your ideas, programs, writing styles, dreams, stories, products…they’re all very amazing, very inspiring, and I’m very appreciative.


10 thoughts on “The Portrait of a Writer

  1. Clean, well, I am organized. But ‘A Clean Desk Is A Sign Of A Sick Mind’.
    Coffee – yes, I have my own espresso machine and I grind my beans per cup.
    Eavesdrop – yes, and observation too. I do have a funny incident about describing something criminal from my fiction to a friend, and someone leaning so far out to eavesdrop they almost fell from their bar stool. When I turned my attention on him, the eavesdropper quickly paid his bill and fled the bar.
    Insomnia – not really, I’m a sound sleeper and I have a voice recorder by the bed.

    Thanks for your article!

  2. Hey! I’m a neat writer who doesn’t drink coffee and sleeps pretty well but I’m a serious eavesdropper. I hide out and listen behind walls, buildings, and trees if I’m really curious.


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