On not being (only) a writer – Adelia Saunders

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By Adelia Saunders

It occurs to me that being a writer is a little like being a spy: you watch and listen, look for patterns, sift through information and make sense of accumulated facts. Ultimately, you transmit your findings in code. And, like a spy, a writer may be better off if she doesn’t go around telling everyone what she’s up to.

In fact, I think there is a lot to be said for being a secret-identity writer. A moonlighter. A devoted amateur. I imagine Anton Chekhov, the country doctor, setting down his pen to listen to the lungs of tubercular villagers. His profession put him in the middle of conversations and silences a full-time writer never would have overheard, and when his patients had been seen and cared for and his work that day was done, he immortalized their inner lives.Indelible book jacket

We wouldn’t have Mark Twain if Samuel Clemens hadn’t worked on riverboats, or Isak Dinesen if the Baroness von Blixen hadn’t run a coffee farm in Kenya. The authors I admire most didn’t sit alone in quiet rooms. They had busy, complicated lives, and while they probably appreciated a peaceful hour to work as much as anyone, you get the sense from their writing that they’ve just kicked off muddy boots.

When I’m doing work that feels far from creative I remind myself that a writer has to know her characters, and that most characters are not writers. When I do sit alone in a room, writing, I often find myself wishing I’d lived dozens of non-writer lives. If only, like Chekhov, I’d had the chance to listen to my characters’ breathing, to put my hands on their foreheads or take their pulse.

I remind myself that time to write is not the only thing a writer needs. A writer needs to know how people use words, and what their hands do while they’re listening, what the soil in Kenya smells like or the colors of the Mississippi. In other words, a writer needs to live in the world, gathering intelligence that’s worth encrypting.


Indelible is Adelia Saunders’ first novel. She grew up in Colorado and has studied Shakespeare in London, taught English in Paris, and worked for an agricultural economist in Uganda. She has a master’s degree in international relations from Georgetown University, and currently lives with her family in New York City.

adeliasaunders.com

2 Comments

  1. heatheradams2013

    April 6, 2017 at 3:04 am

    Love this as a lawyer by day, writer in my spare time. 🙂 (And this is kind of random, but I have to share that at first glance I thought the picture was of Natalie Portman!)

  2. Lauren Denton

    April 7, 2017 at 9:34 pm

    I love this! Great reminder that being a writer sometimes can’t be our first priority. Most writers have different day jobs (or round-the-clock jobs)–it’s good to remember that the other parts of our lives can actually be helpful to our life as a writer.

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