The Secret of Normal - by Tony Daniel

I spent a good portion of my life being a writer in secret. Not for lack of trying, but more because everyone around me thought it was a stupid idea, my trying to write books. “It’s a pipe dream,” they would tell me. “You’re wasting your time.” “What makes you think you can write?” “There’s a reason why certain people write books and others don’t – talent.”

Oh yeah, I’ve heard them all. And yet, I kept on writing. Like most people who aspire to write, I had the traditional desk drawer full of half-written novels, plays that needed finishing, and short stories that just petered out after about ten pages. But I never abandoned any of them. I just put them away to simmer.

I spent many years working in the “real world,” just like people wanted me to. I did the shirt-and-tie thing, took my paychecks home, and lived the life of everyone else’s images. But I wrote. I wrote essays and articles and op-ed pieces. I picked up a few freelance gigs here and there, usually for no real byline, just a check, but I was writing. You need 600 words on the joys of visiting the Grand Canyon for your in-flight magazine? I can do that. Four hundred words of filler for a training manual? You got it. A revision of your entire employee manual to make it seem more ‘friendly’? Consider it done. Not a problem, and thank you for your money.

But, all the while, I wrote the things I wanted to write about. The freelance pieces were my “gateway drug,” if you will. They opened the doors to the other writing, the writing where the author creates their own world, their own vision of place, of people, of personality. Some were not pretty at all, I freely admit. Some were flat-out bad, if I am to be completely honest. Some were dark, dark to the point that I had to question exactly where my mindset was to even wander in that direction. Some were so ridiculously optimistic that a reader would think I was sitting at a keyboard or typewriter with a scuba tank full of laughing gas on my back.

If there are rules to writing, the one that can be the hardest to grasp is really the simplest one – find your own voice, your own style. Anyone can say they want to write like Pat Conroy, or Harper Lee, or A. Conan Doyle, or Jane Austen. And I know many people that have tried to base their writing life on trying to match the styles of those authors, sewing patchwork quilts of beautiful words into blankets of lyrical prose, only to find out that those styles are hard to match.

My question becomes this – why would you want to be a carbon copy of someone else?

Toni Morrison once said “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it."

When I read that quote for the first time, it hit me like a left hook to the jaw. THAT was why I enjoyed writing so much, but I had never been able to put it into words. Sure, writing might seem like a pipe dream to some people, but those people are generally so tied into their own lifestyle that they want, no, they NEED you to follow along with them in order to keep the status quo. If your dream conflicts with their ideas of “normal,” then they must put you in your place, right behind them, while they lead you on the path of “normal.”

Is it abnormal, then, to want to create? Absolutely not. Painters paint, sculptors sculpt, knitters knit, and illustrators illustrate. Why can’t a writer write? And if there are books out there that I want to read, but the books don’t exist, why shouldn’t I be the one to write those books? I don’t need to write the next Pat Conroy book, or the next “To Kill A Mockingbird,” or the new “Pride and Prejudice.” I can go buy those. What I can’t go buy are the books in my head, the stories I find darting from synapse to synapse, the questions I hear bouncing around in my head as I try to fall asleep at night.
I decided to write my first novel at the age of 12. I hunted and pecked my way through 75 badly-typed pages with an old Royal typewriter I found at a garage sale, and loved every second of it. The story itself was terrible, pieced together from books I had read, movies I had seen, and plot holes big enough to park a truck in, but I loved every moment of typing with two index fingers, crossing out errors with capital X’s, and the freedom I felt while putting this odd little world together.

And now, some 40 years later, with bundles of anonymous freelance pieces out there in the universe, scripts for advertising campaigns for car lots and PSA’s for camping safety and the like, I gave in to the dream and wrote a full novel. And, wonder of wonders, people bought it to read. I am no threat to Stephen King or Michael Connolly yet, but I proudly held a copy of a book I wrote in many a face and said, “Does this look like a pipe dream now?”

I am now a part of a universe, a gathering of like-minded people who create with words. And those detractors who wanted me to follow the normal path are behind me now, wanting to know how they can “become” writers. Suddenly, all the folks who spent years wanting me to follow their lead are wanting me to lead them. “Normal” is not as fun as they want it to be, it seems.

Look around you, look around at the world we live in now. What the hell is “normal” anymore? And, if THIS is “normal,” why would you want to be a part of it?

We, as writers, have the ability to create our own “normal,” bring it to the world, and let readers decide if they enjoy it or not. We are free to create the citizens of our worlds, have them behave as we think they should, and let those people endure adventures, hardships, joys, and sorrows. And if those characters sink into the memories of a reader, and flip that little switch that sets them into thinking that they, too, want to create, to write, then THAT should be the “normal” we all strive for.

When you open a book, you open a world. When you write a book, you open your world up to the reader. If they join your world, if they embrace it and make it a part of their mind, then you have welcomed another writer-to-be into the group. And that, folks, is what makes writing worthwhile to me. I’m a storyteller, and if my stories bring you in, you are welcome to stay. If you want to become a storyteller, find your stories and tell them. Plain and simple, just tell the story and see who joins in.


Umberto Tosi said…
Oh my, do I know that song. I in that writers' closet for years, during which time I pursued only what from my distorted cultural perspective could be considered a somewhat respectable form of putting words-to-pages for a living, newspapering (and later, magazine editing and writing.) I didn't really start on fiction in earnest until about a dozen years ago in my 60s. Thanks for your candid, well told post.
Bill Kirton said…
Inspiring stuff, Tony. Like you (and Umberto) I've always been involved in writing, even when I was churning out derivative crap as a kid, then 'poetry' when love (or, more likely, sex) came along. But I'm not sure we had much choice - we were lucky enough to have that particular talent. (I write that without feeling it's boasting - it's a fact. We've written stuff and readers, PR people, Safety Officers, 'Executives', students of all sorts of things and others we don't even know about have read and appreciated it. They paid us to do it because they didn't have access to anyone else who could do it better - or at all.) If they want someone to design a poster, or a garden, or a frock, or paint a portrait, or do lots of other tasks calling for specific skills, I'd strongly advise them not to come to me.) If I'd been given the choice of talents, is writing the one I'd have chosen? As opposed, say, to making millions of pounds? Probably not, but I feel immensely privileged and definitely one of the lucky ones.
Scott said…
Cap'n Tony nailed it.
Dennis Hamley said…
Cap'n Tony, what an amazing post. And how, surveying the scene from the high crag of age and having seen it all before which I share with Umberto and Bill, I can recognise and assent to everything you say. All our yesterdays, eh? Brilliant!

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