What Makes a Writer?

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What makes someone a writer?

I’ve had occasion to ask myself that question in a couple of different contexts over the last few weeks, and to contemplate my own answer.  One such occasion was attending this year’s Thrillerfest publishing conference.  The other was a third trip to one of my favorite vacation destinations.

Thrillerfest was a blast.  I had occasion to visit in person with Murder-Books.com buddies Roger Johns and Bruce Robert Coffin (Brian and Mark, we missed you guys!).  I had a chance to visit with my friend and literary agent, the lovely and gracious Paula Munier, which is always a treat.  And I shared lots of laughs with old friends and new.

But the highlight of the trip for me was last Thursday night.  Paula’s agency, Talcott Notch, held a cocktail reception for their writers and other guests.  I found myself surrounded by a throng of talented people, including my hands-down favorite modern fiction writer, Lee Child.  Yeah that’s right:  I was partying with Lee Child.  I chatted with him for several minutes.  I asked him about his craft, and get this:  he asked about mine!  He, like virtually all the big names in writing I’ve met thus far, was incredibly gracious, humble, and generous with his time and insight.  As an as-yet unpublished kid raised in rural Cajun country in Louisiana, I felt like I’d arrived! Mr. Child and the other writers there made me feel as though I were truly a part of this community.

The other experience was in one of my favorite places in the world, Key West.  It’s a magical place, some describe it as New Orleans in the Caribbean, and that is accurate.  It’s a lush, vibrant place teeming with life, but with a laid-back vibe so palpable, relaxation is practically mandatory.  There, I visited the home of Ernest Hemingway.  I have to be honest, he is not my absolute favorite American writer; for me, that’s John Steinbeck.  But Papa is certainly in my top five.

The Hemingway house is a very interesting experience.  You gain insight as to how he lived, his influences and relationships, and the sheer breadth of his work.  Not the mention the six-toed cats regally lording over the place.  In a sort of guest house separate from the main house, you can visit Hemingway’s office.  Where he wrote.

Hemingway

I had seen it before on a visit years ago.  But this time, I had a difference response.  As I stood staring around the room, I tried to imagine how Hemingway wrote.  I compared it to my favorite places to write, and I tried to guess what it would feel like to sit at that table, with that manual typewriter, and chase literary greatness.

Please don’t misunderstand me:  I am in no way trying to compare myself to Ernest Hemingway.  But what was different about this trip from the last time is that now, I was looking at this room as a writer.  What had changed?

In one sense, I’ve written for years.  As a child, I remember creating intricate backstories for my favorite super hero action figures.  I enjoyed writing stories in high school and college, and the Humanities and Literature classes were my favorites.  In my Private Investigator career, my case was not complete until I wrote up the report, essentially writing the story of what I’d found.

I’d even flirted with the idea of writing professionally as a young adult.  An older cousin, Muse Watson, is a successful character actor with a long and diverse career.  An early commercial success of his was his role as the killer in the horror film I Know What You Did Last Summer.

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After that movie proved to be a smash, he and one of the producers on that film explored ideas for making a prequel that would expand on Muse’s character’s origins.  As Muse was visiting family in Louisiana during this time, I started sharing with him ideas they might use in a prequel.  He laughed, liking what he heard, and said, “You should write it.”  I told him sure, I’d write down my ideas and send it to him.  He said, “No, you should write a script.”

I did.  I met with producers a dozen times.  I pitched that script and others on spec.  But despite several near misses, nothing ever really came from that.  But my supportive cousin had sparked a new passion in me.  But I still didn’t consider myself a “writer.”

But there on my most recent visit to Hemingway’s house, I did.  Something has changed in the six years since my previous visit to change the way I see myself today.  Is it actually finishing multiple novel-length manuscripts?  Is it making friends with successful published writers?  Is it obtaining representation from a literary agent?  Is it writing for this blog?  Is it having a drink with Lee Child?

The answer, I think, is “yes.”  It’s all of those things combined.  In my case, it was the combination of those things that flipped a switch in my head simply to accept it.  Because I think the true answer of what makes someone a writer is simply someone who writes.  Anybody who has a story to tell, anybody with a passion for a compelling narrative and rich characters, we’re all part of the same tribe.

I have a deep appreciation and gratitude for every single person who has welcomed me to this world, encouraged me, guided me, and supported me.  There are far too many to name here, but you know who you are, and you have my thanks.  I’m having a blast being a part of this, and I’m excited for what the future holds.  Simple math suggests the odds are not kindly disposed toward me being the next Lee Child.  Heck, it’s possible I’ll never even get published.  That would be disappointing, but even so, I’m enjoying the journey.  I love being a writer.

-Ben Keller

3 thoughts on “What Makes a Writer?

  1. Great post, Ben. I struggled with that same question–Am I a Writer–during my time in an MFA Writing program. At that time, calling myself a Writer sounded overly pretentious. However, like you, I eventually came to accept the title and cemented it with business cards with “Writer” below my name. I know you will soon feel comfortable adding titles such as “author,” “award-winning author,” and “best-selling author,” alongside your name.

    Like

  2. Ben, I have no idea what you did last summer. But reading your blog, I now have a pretty good Idea what you did this summer–Thrillerfest, Key West and Write. Sounds way better than getting chased by a mysterious villain with a hook.
    Mark

    Liked by 1 person

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