“What are you writing?”
This question is one I’ve had so often I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had to explain. The curiosity is never lessened. No matter how many times I try to tell someone I’m just writing a story, there is no end to that questioning. As if they think I’m lying and, eventually, I’ll come clean. Yes. Writers make people nervous. Because it is a strange thing, this act of putting words on paper. To watch it happening is like watching someone undress; there is an intimacy to it that seems to cry out for privacy. Like sex, it isn’t something you ought to be doing in public, right?
The writer is still and quiet, focusing inward, denying the external in the name of their own thoughts. To see it done is both far more boring than people realize and far more unsettling; how often do you see someone that sits without moving anything but their hands, oblivious to everything happening around them?
I can remember being eighteen and perfect strangers would see me in the park or the mall or at a restaurant, lost in worlds of my own making, and come to talk to me. They rarely bothered with hello or excuse me. There was always just one thing on their minds. “What are you writing?” As if this act of publicly refusing the outside world in favor of the inner was something that had to be addressed. As if they were considering calling someone, but didn’t quite know who. And sometimes they would look at me with such expectation, as if they thought maybe, just maybe, I was writing down the meaning of life and might be able to share.
Writers make people nervous. We can be scatterbrained, flustered, unfocused. Between writing, we might walk into walls or apologize to the furniture (I do). Between words, we are ordinary human beings who don’t know where we left our keys and forget to buy sugar. But once we settle in, once all the gears are turning we call upon an intensity that becomes a singular force. The sort of force that could build Deathstars or plot to take over the world… and manage it.
We build civilizations, create languages, orchestrate lives. We change minds and teach empathy and sometimes create so well that our stories send ripples through an entire life. I still bow my head to King; IT haunts me still as both beautiful and terrifying. It changed the way I looked at the world. It made me see things I’d never seen before. When I began to write, that was part of my driving force, a book that made me pay attention, even when I didn’t realize I was paying attention.
My ex used to look at me and wonder where I got that blue vase on the end table in the house of a minor character. I couldn’t explain it to him; I don’t always know where the vases come from myself. It is like having third eye, one that sees little flashes of things, leaving me to fill in all the dark spaces. Do the vases – and potted plants and lurking ghosts – come from something I’ve seen or am I making it all up? Who knows? I don’t even care when I’m writing; I’m just chasing those bright spots and trying to keep up.
To the rest of the world, watching someone focus intently, page after page, on writing is nerve wracking. How still they sit! How quiet they are! It isn’t natural! It isn’t right! The only answer is that there must be something to this writing, something they need to understand. I see what looks like desperation in their eyes, sometimes, as if they think I know some deep and meaningful secret. As if I can give them a spiritual awakening if I would just tell them what I’m writing. As if I might just save them, become some sort of guru with a ball point pen stuck behind my ear. Only I’m not really enlightened at all and seeing my painful level of normality makes it all so much more confusing.
Writers make people nervous. You can see it, when a writer is truly tuned in. It is as though they are wrapped in something holy, a white light that shines only on them. In a world where Facebook has stolen focus, where most people can’t hold still longer than ten minutes at a time, this seems almost like witchcraft. That sense of something magical happening is undeniable – watch any artist lost in their work and you’ll see what I mean.
There is a mysticism to this, a strangeness that takes on an almost supernatural quality. Who knows what we are seeing? Who is to say we aren’t reading minds, pulling secrets out of the air like a magician producing rabbits out of hats? And this is what strikes people, what causes their palms to begin to sweat and hearts to beat harder. They have to approach. They have to know. They have to ask. What are you writing?
Because writers make people nervous.