According to conventional wisdom, there are three types of writers: The Inspired Writer, The Prepared Writer and the Butt-in-the-Chair Writer. I have made a portion of my living from the written word since 1978 and, in my time, I have been each of those writers. Each style has its pros and cons. Let’s take a closer look:
The Inspired Writer is the one who only writes when inspired. This is the most amateurish of the styles—and the most unpredictable. Although this type of writing can produce beautiful work, it is unreliable. To have real-world impact, every successful writer must be productive and meet deadlines. The Inspired Writer is often severely challenged in this regard.
At the other end of spectrum, The Prepared Writer is the one who researches meticulously and will not begin writing until thoroughly prepared. Many academic writers fall into this category. While they, too, can do amazing work, they often have difficulty being truly productive. They tell themselves that they are working hard. But hard work is really just another form of laziness and becomes an excuse for avoiding the more difficult task of sitting down to the real work of writing.
This brings us to the Butt-in-the-Chair Writer. I spent most of my early writing career in this mode. The idea here is that you sit down to your work and you grind it out, no matter how exhausted, hung-over or distracted you feel. It is true, this style of writing will increase your chances of completing your work and meeting deadlines. But it will also turn you into a stone-cold hack. You tell yourself, “It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be on time.”
I learned to write in a newsroom. In the 1970’s, I went to Pennsylvania State University and majored in Journalism. This was the Nixon/Watergate Era. I was inspired by Woodward and Bernstein and caught up in the heady rush of working on the college paper, The Daily Collegian. The Journalism program at Penn State was excellent. But I did not learn to write in class. I really learned to write, under deadline pressure, in the newsroom of the college paper. Later I secured an internship as a newspaper reporter in Sharon, PA, a rusting steel town on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border. I covered fire and police news and local government. I came back from these experiences as a cocky, card-carrying member of the Butt-in-the-Chair school of writing.
A Change in Direction
But when I graduated, I could not find a job. This took the wind out of my sails. I was 26 years old and did not know what to do with my life. By some strange magic, at times like this, the right book will fall into your hands and can change your life. While browsing through the local library, I stumbled across Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. He quickly became my new hero: the writer who goes off into the woods alone, away from the distractions of the world, to learn what life was really about.
So that is what I did. I found a run-down cabin on 160 acres of mountain land that friends rented to me for $50 a month. The cabin had no running water, no indoor plumbing. no central heating and no modern conveniences of any kind. It sat in a dense pine forest, half way up a mountain along a sparkling stream the locals called Sinking Creek. I lived there for two and a half years, cutting firewood, working odd jobs for spending money and pecking away on my manual Underwood typewriter.
In the silence and simplicity that Thoreau had recommended, my new writing life began. Away from the distractions of the world, I started to do a new kind of writing. I did not know it at the time, but I was learning to be the kind of writer no one talks about: The Writer in Flow.
“Flow” is a term coined by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihakly (chick-sent-me-high) to describe the experience of being totally immersed in a task so that self-consciousness vanishes and time seems to disappear. This is the state of pure creativity. While working in this state of mind, all of the pitfalls of the other writing styles tend to fall away and you are left with the pure, unadulterated joy of writing and writing well.
At the time, many of my friends and most of my family thought I was crazy. And maybe I was. But when I came out of the woods three winters and two summers later, I had a manuscript for a 30,000-word historical fiction novel, The Bread Sister of Sinking Creek, which would later become my first book. I sold it to HarperCollins in 1983 and my writing career was off and running. Nearly forty years later, it is still in print and is still my best-selling book. I went on to write more than a dozen other books and was published by the world’s largest publishers, including HarperCollins, Random House and Simon & Schuster. I won some literary awards and raised two kids on my writing earnings and sent them to college.
The Student Learns to Teach
Slowly, I developed an instructional method for sharing my writing techniques with others and received a string of teaching assignments which eventually led me to The Graduate Institute. Through the Writing and Oral Traditions program, I am continuing to share what I learned up on that windswept mountainside, with the ghost of Henry David Thoreau standing beside me, urging me to be the best writer I was capable of being.