Cambrian: Opinion

What’s involved in being a writer? A few observations

Ayen Johnson, now an instructor at Coast Union, teaches computer keyboarding to a Flamson Middle School sixth-grade class in Paso Robles, in this photo from 2004.
Ayen Johnson, now an instructor at Coast Union, teaches computer keyboarding to a Flamson Middle School sixth-grade class in Paso Robles, in this photo from 2004.

I get questions from time to time about what it’s like to be a writer. So, here are a few of them, along with some I’ve asked myself, and the answers I’ve come up with.

Q. Can you boil down writing into its simplest form?

A. The answer’s the same whether you’re reporting a news story, writing about history or even working on a novel: You ask questions. You write down the answers. Who, what, where, when, why and how. You don’t have to ask the questions aloud or of people; sometimes you ask them in your head, and go looking for answers in written records, by the side of the road or (if you’re writing fiction) inside your own head. One of the most important questions is “What happens next?” This is the engine of any story; it keeps things moving and keeps the reader engaged, because if you’re asking this question, chances are the reader will be, too.

Q. What’s the most rewarding part of a writer’s life?

A. Telling a story no one else has told, in a way no one else could tell it. This applies whether you’re making things up out of whole cloth, for a novel, or relating factual information for a news story or historical book.

Q. Is it easier to report the facts or write fiction?

A. Reporting the facts is like weaving a tapestry or assembling the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: background, new developments, different perspectives from various sources. You’ve got to find the right pieces and make them fit together. It involves more research and fact-checking than writing fiction (historical fiction being a notable exception). But, I find writing a novel more challenging: It’s like being given a blank canvas and being told, “Make something!” Sometimes, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Q. What’s the most challenging part of your work?

A. Asking questions of people who’ve just lost a loved one. I know one of the last things I’d want to do in that situation would be to talk to someone from the press. It feels invasive to me, and I respect the concept of personal space. One of the most difficult lines to identify, let alone walk, is the one that separates the public’s right to know from the individual’s right to privacy. Respecting that line and working to determine where it lies in every situation is one of the most important things a writer can do.

Q. What’s your favorite type of story to tell?

A. Stories about people who have done or seen incredible things. It’s fascinating to cover stories like the Mud Creek Slide, but it’s even more fun to write about the unusual experiences people go through in their day-to-day lives. Interviews with people like Stephanie Stacy and Louie Ortega come to mind. When I wrote my book about Highway 99, I didn’t limit my account to the road itself; I told the stories of the people who drove it and lived alongside it. That’s where you find the most interesting stories: In the lives of people.

Q. What’s the least favorite part of being a writer?

A. Easy. Attending meetings. Having those questions in your head and wading through a three- four- or five-hour meeting hoping they’ll get answered is an exercise in extreme frustration. The silver lining is that what you hear often raises more questions, but in many cases, you have to wait to get those answered, too. If writing nonfiction is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, covering a meeting can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. When people stop behaving civilly to one another, it’s as if you’ve uncovered a pile of manure instead.

Q. Where do you find time to write?

A. You don’t find the time, you make the time.