What then is a writer when he isn’t actually writing? the following is a dialogue I am having Flaubert, a favorite author of mine, long gone but his work and his letters remain. In these letters, I see a fine example of how a writer works when not writing.
“That isn’t to say that I haven’t collected a few metaphors. I had had a few stirrings. But how to make use of them, and where?” -Gustaf Flaubert
I often return to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary if only for the joy of his prose. Recently, I came upon his letters to Geroge Sand where he often wrote of the writing process. Here are some of the excerpts:
“And from the past I go dreaming into the future, where I see nothing, nothing. I have no plans, no idea, no project, and, what is worse, no ambition…I don’t feel within me the physical strength to publish, to run to the printer, to choose paper, to correct proofs, etc. Better to work for yourself alone.”
How often do I implore my students to write from themselves and for themselves. Write the book or play or film you would like to see. To write what you think the market wants changes all the time. When you write from something deep within, it is unique – not a copy. The story for my Disney film starring Dolly Parton, Unlikely Angel, came to me in a dream which I recorded in my dream journal which lies next to my bed. Ten days later, Dolly Parton asked her people to find me to see if I might have a film story for her, as she was a fan of my earlier film, The Christmas Wife (HBO). I remembered the dream and pitch it as a story of a country singer who died and in heaven could not earn her wings as she was still too attached to earthly pleasures. I did not know that Parton was wild about angels. This became the film, Unlikely Angel.
“When you are given no encouragement by others, sensitive people are forced to seek somewhere within themselves a more suitable place to live.”
Writers live within themselves and create a world sometimes better than the one outside. Which is real? Who can say?
“The more one lives, the more one suffers. (On Suffering) Our purpose is not to dry it up, but to create outlets for it. The soul expands with suffering.”
Writing is the best therapy I know. Whatever happens in a writer’s life is grist for the mill. Also, the best stories seem to arise from the most challenging events in one’s life.
“I think constantly of those who are gone; as my body continues on its journey,
my thoughts keep turning back to bury themselves in days past.”
For a writer, the past is a gold mine wherein we mine our stories. My latest book, East & West: Stories of India (August 2023) is a book of short stories set in India where I have spent many years. Though they are called fiction, as I tell my students, “Fiction is emotional autobiography.”
A writer is always working on some level – even when not actually writing. Reading good books. Seeing great films. Listening to what people say. Observing what people do. I think I have always been fascinated by why people do what they do and what makes them who they are. When asked in an interview, “What would you do if you weren’t a writer or teacher of writing?” I replied, “Probably a Jungian analyst.” In fact, I had obtained a graduate degree in Depth Psychology though never practiced as such. This became another tool in my writing and my teaching. And is the reason my stories are always character-driven stories.
So it is that a writer is always writing. The challenge is to be sure to sit down and get it on the page!