Igniting a Writer’s Spark
What starts a writer on the path to writing as a career? There is a story behind all great writers—whether it is an event that touched them so deeply that they were compelled to put their experience in writing, or perhaps simply an innate need to put pen to paper and let their thoughts run free. The spark to write may come in grade school when a teacher recognizes the potential of a student. It may continue throughout an academic career in English and writing courses, and keep smoldering throughout a person’s life, as opportunities to write present themselves in different areas, from the workplace to outside hobbies. But what keeps this spark from burning out to cold ash? What keeps a writer’s pilot light from going out completely? While I’m certainly not in the league of "great writers," I like to write, and have often considered writing as a profession.
My own story began in grade school, and there have been instances throughout my life that have kept me writing, if only trivially. Eighth grade marked the point that the spark was lit. We had a new English teacher that year, and he was a writer. The entire year in his class was unlike any other English class we’d had in the previous seven years of elementary school: we were writing. We’d never been charged with writing before, save the usual and customary “What I Did Over Summer Vacation” paper at the beginning of the year. Sure, there were science projects, and Social Studies history papers, but English class—up until eighth grade—was for grammar and penmanship. We’d spent years learning the proper pronoun to use in a sentence, and Mrs. Higgins made it a point to let us know that there were actual reasons why one was correct over another, not just because “it sounds better.” Mr. Juster, on the other hand, wanted us to write. We were tasked with writing a page a day in his class, on anything we wanted. For lack of topic material, I simply started going through the alphabet, and I cranked out these short papers in the five or ten minutes before class started. Writing came easy for me once I had a topic. At the end of that year, I won the award for the highest score in English, and was presented with a set of Cross pens for my efforts.
In high school and college, writing assignments were again not something I had difficulty with, although book reports presented a special challenge for me. Admittedly, I am not a reader. I’ve often wondered if this is unusual for someone who likes to write. However, one assignment in particular during my junior year in high school stands out as another specific reason why the spark was not extinguished: The Red Badge of Courage. The book was a summer reading assignment, and although I had read it, I seemed to have difficulty regurgitating the plot when it came time to do the report. I am embarrassed to admit that I consulted a writer named Cliff to help me with the assignment. Needless to say, my teacher was not impressed. However, after the initial disapproval that is now forever seared into my brain, she offered some additional guidance and insight, and suggested that I redo the assignment. I was forced to look inside myself to find inspiration for the paper, and I finally found something in my own life experience that fit. It took some digging, but once I had the topic, I was off and running. The personal accounts, thoughts, concerns and emotions that I had experienced relevant to the book willed themselves onto the pages, and I turned in an “A” paper.
After college, another opportunity to write came in the form of a club newsletter. I offered to be the club secretary, and it was my job to edit and create copy for the newsletter. I chose to submit my own piece that I had written about a friend’s wedding in Mississippi, setting the narrative in Medieval times. All of the events that took place during that event fell easily into place, creating an entertaining article that I still get encouraging comments on today.
It’s not just actual writing opportunities that keep me inspired to write. Movies, especially ones that involve a character who is a writer, are really what encourage me to not reject the idea that writing can be a worthwhile pursuit. Some people would say that a movie is only good if it is an epic event that is worthy of an Oscar. Personally, I think that if a movie inspires someone in any number of ways, the screenplay writers, producers, directors and actors have done their job tremendously well.
At the top of my list of favorite “writer’s movies” is Anne of Green Gables. If there is one movie that defines (for me) a writer, it’s this one. Anne Shirley is the quintessential struggling author who, from a very young age, is inspired by great writing. She lives and breathes such literary work as “The Lady of Shalott” by Lord Alfred Tennyson. I listen to her talk, and she never seems to be at a loss for words. Not just any words, either—the perfect words. When Anne speaks, it is from the heart: eloquent, straightforward, and honest. She is driven to succeed, having been rejected early in her life because she is an orphan, and because her hair is red. She wants to overcome obstacles, and her determination is unwavering. Anne is constantly taking in the world from a deeper perspective than most people. For example, at one point in the sequel, she picks a few insignificant wild blossoms, and emphatically states: “Aren’t these blossoms fragrant, Morilla? Drink them in!” I love that!
Another favorite is Never Been Kissed with Drew Barrymore. Some people might take this movie at face value for the silly plot that it is: an ambitious, geeky copy editor is sent undercover in order to write about the challenges that high school kids face. What sets this movie apart as a ‘writer’s movie,’ for me, is the fact that- like Anne Shirley, Drew’s character has always known exactly what she wants to do with her life: write. She is exceptionally good at what she does, which is copy editing for a newspaper. She is a grammar geek who also loves literature, and has an arsenal of knowledge and innate emotions that she consistently draws from to experience life, and put it to words.
Recently, I watched The Help, and Confessions of a Shopaholic. While The Help had much more substance as a movie, “Confessions” also held its own as an inspirational, yet sophomoric storyline about a struggling writer. Each of these movies has served the purpose of reigniting, even breathing new life into my desire to write. In The Help, the young writer digs deep to expose the experiences of the Negro maids in the racially tense south of the 1960s. Over several months, and dozens of interviews done in secret, she is able to break through the black-white barrier and gain the trust of the women she wants to write about. The interesting part is that she isn’t doing it for herself; her initial idea for her book was just ‘something to write about,’ but through her own experiences, and hearing the stories of the maids, the book took on a life of its own, and she became part of it instead of writing about it at arm’s length.
This movie also taught me that writing takes courage- the kind of courage that rejects all insecurities that what you have to say is worthwhile. This alone was my personal epiphany, and for me, a darned good reason for the spark to not go out.
From “Confessions,” I was able to see that writing doesn’t always have to be about something as deep as politics or something as eloquent as Tennyson’s poetry. What sparked my interest for writing from this movie was that it literally makes the connection between writing and a person’s life experiences. Life is not always politically-correct. It’s also not always eloquently stated, as in the case of this character, whose main crisis in this movie is her debt, which was brought on by her natural tendency to want to shop-a-lot. What’s eloquent about debt?
This movie brought it all together for me: writing is not just how much we can impress an editor with what we know about grammar and vocabulary. It’s about experiences. It’s about looking deeper than the surface of our lives, and seeing that there is something worthwhile to write about. The difficult part is perhaps realizing that one’s life isn’t just superficial. Life doesn’t happen to us. We live it. We may have an easier life than some; our struggles aren’t necessarily the same as the next person’s, but they are ours. A middle-class girl with middle-class issues may not be struggling with deep issues that go beyond political, social, or economic barriers, but that doesn’t make them any less important or interesting to write about.
Each of these minor events and films has been sewn into the fabric of my seemingly insignificant, middle-class life, and each has made an impact on why I continue to have that writer’s pilot light deep down inside. It doesn’t go away, and as I write this, I am starting to see more than just a continual flicker of light from a short-circuited light bulb. I remain continually encouraged that even late in the game, “there’s still time to change the road you’re on.” (Led Zeppelin. “Stairway to Heaven.” Led Zeppelin IV. Atlantic Records, 1971)
Copyright © Tina Richard 2012