Phyllis Schieber Author

Women's Fiction by Phyllis Schieber

Thoughts From Phyllis Schieber About Writing

This past weekend I watched the documentary “Man on Wire,” the breathtaking film about Philippe Petit, the twenty-four-year old French self-trained wire walker who pulled off the “artistic crime of the century” in 1974 when he walked and danced on a wire suspended between the two towers of the World Trade Center. For forty-five minutes, Petit performed a high-wire act without a safety net or a harness, mesmerizing the crowd that had gathered on the sidewalk 110 stories below. While I was fascinated by Petit’s skill and the daring feat that continues to amaze, I was perhaps even more taken with his attitude and response to the hordes of reporters who asked the same question over and over: “Why did you do it?” Petit’s frustration is almost as exquisite as his exploit. He responds, “Here I do something magnificent and beautiful and people ask why. There is no why.” And such is the response of that rare individual: a true artist, the person who creates and performs for the sake of art.

I am no Philippe Petit. I know why I write, but I understand what he means when he says, “There is no why.”  If someone were to ask me why I write, I would have to say, “Because I have no choice.” In the years between the sales of my books, I continued to write, and I would have continued even if my agent was unable to sell The Sinner’s Guide to Confession. I write because I am a writer. I write because it is the way I make sense of the world. And I write because whatever I see or hear or experience has the potential to be translated into narrative. I notice the way a woman holds her bread at the edge of her husband’s plate, so his beans will not spill over. I record the most subtle exchange of looks between friends when someone else at the table mentions a name. I am aware of how a mother and daughter resemble each other as they shop together in a department store. When I attend a dinner for a friend and the hostess tells the story of how her previous home burned down, I am eager to leave and jot down the details because it is likely I will want to use not only the story, but the narrator’s wonderful tone and good humor as she tell about the unfortunate event. I will be sure to make mention of her crisp blue eyes and her throaty laughter. Often when I ask someone if he or she noticed something that was so apparent to me, I get a quizzical look. Always, however, I am the one who is perplexed. How is it possible that such an unusual expression, or such a surprisingly harsh tone or such an unexpected movement could go unnoticed when it is as plain as anything to me? I am always listening, always looking and always writing in my head.

One of the most important lessons I have learned as a writer is that I am not unique. I remember once many years ago, I had a meltdown and phoned my writing teacher of many years, the late Hayes Jacobs. I wailed, “I’ll never be successful. I don’t have any talent. I’m wasting my time in your seminar. There’s no point.” He listened without interruption. When I was done, he said, “You too, eh?” I laughed, but I felt better immediately. Apparently, all writers anguish at one time or another. The life of a writer is a solitary and often frustrating. Still, I celebrate that it is my daunting destiny to recreate my perceptions, and then put them in a form that makes sense to others. Sometimes I struggle, and sometimes the words seem to dance onto the page. When the words dance, a rare occurrence, I worry that it is too easy. There seems to be a happy medium. Writing is always a consequence of extremes. Mostly, however, I feel blessed that I am able to string words together in a way that has an impact on others. The ability to make someone laugh or cry, or even both, is a thrill that little else surpasses.

Perhaps it is because I began to read early and never stopped that it feels as though what happens in books makes much more sense than what happens in real life. Books are simply a written record of the writer’s truth, and I have the wonderful job of delivering that truth to my readers. When a story begins to take shape in my consciousness, I always worry if it is a story worth telling. Is it original? Is it interesting enough? Once I move past that stage and allow myself to be swept along by the characters and their needs, I settle down to the real work of making the story come to life. I am in charge now, but not really. The story is in charge. I am merely its voice. I almost never grow tired of being a writer. There is always something that inspires me, or evokes a memory, or sparks an emotion. I sometimes have this image of myself holding a huge magnet, watching as all my thoughts and dreams come twirling at top speed, drawn to the magnet, eager to be captured and finally uncovered.

I am always on the lookout for a new story, an anecdote that can be turned into a novel, a few lines in the newspaper that catch my attention, or the way a couple holds hands on the train, staring wordlessly ahead. Something must have just happened. I study them surreptitiously for the duration of the ride, wondering, imagining, and planning. It is the beginning of chapter. There really is no why.

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July 22, 2009 - Posted by | Thoughts From Phyllis Schieber, Writing

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