It seems to me that we spend our childhood building our initial vision of the world. We do our best trying to answer as many questions as possible, and in our eagerness to understand everything around us, we name things and label them and we think that we’re absolutely certain that things are exactly how we see them.
And I also feel that we always return to this initial vision.
Fourteen years ago, on a sad winter night, I decided to become a writer. I was only a boy back then, but I thought I understood writing well enough to embark on this strange and perilous odyssey. I thought writing was easy: all you had to do was sit down and write. I thought I had imagination, and I thought I was smart enough, and all I had to do was write.
Whenever I felt like it, I would write. I would write exactly what was on my mind, with little care for the words I chose. I didn’t care about that. I thought all that mattered was the story; the essence of the thing, not the outer layer.
A year or so later, I discovered an online forum. I had a lot of fun discussing with the members of that forum on a lot of different topics: from sports to politics, to books, to movies. There was a section on that forum where you could upload fictional stories, and the other members would offer you feedback.
It was the first time I decided to let someone else read one of my stories. And they all hated it. I tried to argue with them, I tried to explain that I was only writing for myself, but it wasn’t really true. Though I hadn’t been aware of it, I had been writing for everyone but myself.
So I changed my vision of what it means to be a writer. The outer layer was important. Without it, they didn’t care about the essence of the story. I began to read like there was no tomorrow. I used to keep a list of books I read and how much time it took me to read them.
And I wrote. I was now beginning to understand how the relationship between a reader and a writer works. How he translated things, how to present things in a way that didn’t sound foreign to him. I would concentrate on the outer layer, trying to make it as beautiful as possible.
And I realized writing was really, really difficult.
Given enough time, you acquire the vocabulary you need to make people see what you see. You develop the right set of skills and the patience and that fluidity you have to give to every story that makes people want to read it all in at once. One word after another, just like a big, big puzzle, I build my stories to impress people.
I cared more about what my readers would think than I cared about what the hell I was trying to say. Frankly, I didn’t really have something to say. I just wanted to write words so beautiful that it would make people cry. I didn’t like to edit, because I thought great writing simply pours out of your heart. In a way, it was like trying to write without lifting your hand off the page.
I did all that for a couple of years, always submitting stories to all the contests I could find. And it all changed when I was sixteen. I wrote a novella, and for the first time, I wrote the type of story I enjoyed reading. I wrote not what I thought someone else might want or need to read, but what I so desperately needed to write.
I wrote with that immense energy and frustration that comes from writing about the things you had and lost, about the things you’ll never have again.
For almost five years that was the best thing I wrote. Most often, in my darkest nights, I’d think that I had lost that elusive quality that makes an artist great. Of course, I still wrote, without much joy or excitement. I’d write for a couple of hours at most, when I had nothing better to do.
I stopped reading.
It was like a former professional basketball player spending his afternoons shooting hoops with some teenage kids. It was less than I knew I could, and even less than I thought I deserved.
Then came something they called “the recession”. Basically, my father, who was in the restaurant business, went bankrupt. I spent the next three years on the closest a person will ever get to being dead. I was just surviving, and in the chaos of never being fully fed I kept on writing.
Hope had died, I think, when I figured out that the publishing business was too complicated and perverse for me to conquer. Especially in my country. And there was a big, big ocean between me and that country I had dreamed about in my younger, more fragile, years.
It seemed impossible. I could recognize it, but I think I never truly accepted it. That’s probably my one redeeming quality: I always fail to accept the impossible.
Most people give up at this stage. When you can’t make money from writing, when no one readers your stuff. Art for art’s sake is the most difficult thing for an artist, but it’s the most essential stage one has to go through.
I was free to write whatever I wanted, whenever I felt like it. And I realized writing was, in fact, easy. All I had to do was sit at my desk and write. Using just words I could imagine into existence a world that didn’t use to exist. A world that could never exist.
I wrote because I was too afraid to speak, I wrote because I was too afraid to go out there, in the big world, and live. You see, most people think that in order to write something great, you need to live it first. You need to do stuff that’s out of the ordinary.
They’re wrong. We’re all ordinary, and only because of this art truly matters. We read, we listen to music, and we admire paintings on walls, because we want to feel as if everyone else is not too different from us. We want to feel less alone. So that’s not important. What really matters is having the courage to write the stories that really matter.
All those boring, boring facts that make you who you are. Or the terrifying ones, the ones you’d do anything to wipe clean. You need courage to write about that. Or to write about what you feel is wrong in this world, what you want changed. To write about the things you truly despise and wish gone, or the things that make you cry in your loneliest of nights.
You become an artist by figuring out what is it that you care about most in this world.