What Does It Take To Be A Writer?

Alexander Maksik is a talented young writer – two well-received novels, stories published in Harper’s, Harvard Review, and Tin House as well as regular contributions to Conde’ Nast Traveler and Departure magazines. I’ve known Xander, as family and friends know him, since he was in middle school. His father and mother, both educators, are friends of mine and co-founders of the Sun Valley Writers Conference. The family counted Peter Matthiessen, Ethan Canin, and the poet WS Merwin as personal friends. It’s no accident that Xander grew up wanting to be a writer.

A Maksik

Real writers know there is a difference between wanting to be a writer and being a writer, a difference Xander talks about when he’s on book tours. In his self-deprecating way he tells the audience that before he became a writer he imagined himself as one – wearing a black turtleneck, jotting down ideas in a dog-eared notebook, drinking Pastis in Paris café. Eventually, after a wrenching personal experience, he became a writer – in Paris – but his writing involved long days in the public library not in a sidewalk café.

I tell that story because I’ve known several people who wanted to be artists but never followed through – a lesson that was not lost on me. I knew a woman in Sun Valley who always talked about being an artist. She designed her perfect studio space and filled it with art supplies but never seemed to get around to making art.

My former wife, on the other hand, soldiered on through a number of our living situations and whether we were living in a VW Camper or a little rented house in France she always had a sketchbook, a watercolor block, and a kid’s tin box of watercolors to get her ideas down on paper. She didn’t want to be an artist. She was one. She’s been an accomplished and successful printmaker/painter for the last 40 years. It doesn’t take the perfect space or a cupboard full of supplies to become a real artist. It takes desire, focus, application and hard work.

Abby print

I imagined myself being a writer too, but it wasn’t until near the end of my work-for-pay life that I stopped imagining and started working to make it happen. In 1970, in a little house in France, I wrote fiction every day for nine months. It was bad stuff and I knew it, but I loved the process. I was 31 at the time and told myself if I wrote 500 words a day I would have a library of work by the time I was 65. When my artist wife and I returned from France I enrolled in a Creative Writing program at San Francisco State College. I completed the course work but left the program when my work-for-pay job transferred me to New York, and not only did I drop the program I dropped the habit of writing every day. Now, at 77, I wish I hadn’t. I wish I had that library of work. I always kept a journal and started a few stories but these were insincere feeble attempts to make myself feel like a writer.

In the intervening years, between San Francisco State and 2009, I thought of myself as a someday writer. I read novels and biographies. I bought books, like Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and Wallace Stegner’s On the Teaching of Creative Writing and scanned them for secrets and short cuts to becoming a writer. It wasn’t until I was 70, without the library of work I imagined at age 31 that I really became a writer. I stopped procrastinating and started writing again.

In 2009 I was beginning a new job in Saigon, and figured if I didn’t start writing then I would never do it. I started with a blog about the daily life of an expatriate and it provided the discipline I needed. In the six years since, I’ve posted over 200 essays (200,000+ words) in two different blogs, kept a journal of over 200 pages, a notebook of “memoir notes” almost as long, several chapters of a prospective memoir and a couple of short stories. I write every day and since returning from Saigon I treat writing as my full time job. I get up, have my coffee, scan the NY Times, and sit down to work for 3-4 hours.

So, why do I write and what is my goal? I write because I like words and ideas, and I want to become proficient at using the former to explain the latter. For now, it’s enough just to write every day. Publication is somewhere down the line. A recent workshop in memoir writing required us to submit work to one or more publications for the experience – to see if there was any interest out there. I submitted work to Moss, a local Seattle literary magazine, two pieces to Creative Nonfiction, a travel piece to the SATW (Society of American Travel Writers) annual travel-writing contest, and two essays to Modern Love at the New York Times. All were rejected. It was disappointing. I know these stories and essays are good – but they were not seen as good enough for publication in the selected venues. I know there are publications out there where these things fit. I just need to find them.

It’s taken awhile to think of myself as a writer. A teacher in one of the writing workshops I took encouraged us to think of and present ourselves as writers even though we were unpublished. It was hard to do that a year ago, but today I confidently call myself a writer. That confidence came slowly and at a price – a painful family experience.

Six years ago my daughter, a professional writer and editor, visited me in Seattle. After a walk together she asked me what I planned to do when I retired from my job in Saigon. I told her how much I wanted to write and that I thought I might do something “memoir like.” Her response was to ask me if I planned to write about all the women in my life while I was married to her Mom.

It was an awful moment but it led more clarity about my writing. The relationship with my daughter took a downward turn but it brought more honesty to it and to my writing. I hadn’t intended to write about that marriage, but if I was going to be a real writer I couldn’t blank it out. From that moment on I had to allow the writing to go where it wanted to go and not where it felt safe. I haven’t gone out of my way to discuss family history or dysfunction but it’s not off limits.

This morning I heard an NPR interview with Meryl Streep and Diablo Cody, the screenwriter, about their new film Rikki and the Flash. The film is about a mother who leaves her husband and 3 children to pursue her dream of being the lead singer in a rock band. There are many painful moments in the film, moments like the one with my daughter, where anger, resentment, and embarrassment control the conversation. In the interview Ms. Cody was asked about a line she gave to Rick Springfield whose character plays lead guitar in Ms. Streep’s band. In a tense argument about parenting estranged children he says,

“It doesn’t matter if your kids love you or not. It’s not their job to love you. It’s your job to love them.”

Hard as it is to accept, I think Rick nailed it. For me writing and family are not divisible interests. I’m a writer and so is my daughter. I’d like to share what I’m doing with her. It could be a nice meeting point for the two of us. Whether we find that sweet spot or not I plan to keep on writing. Maybe she will read it, maybe not. I can’t control what she likes or dislikes, approves or disapproves. As Rick says, “It’s my job to love (her)” not the other way around, and I’m trying to honor that.

When I started to write this, Xander Maksik’s parents were boarding the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton. His father, Jon, has a contract to write about the crossing for Conde Nast Traveler. He’s a very good writer and it’s encouraging to have friends like Jon and Karl Marlantes who are get published later in life. Karl, the bestselling author of Matterhorn, tried for 30 years to find a publisher for his Vietnam War novel. He was 65 when Grove published it in 2010, and it became an award winning first novel and New York Times bestseller. It can happen.


So what does it take to be a writer? It obviously takes hard work and commitment, but more specifically it means that writing has become that person’s driving interest and occupation. I write because I value the art and craft of it, but also because I want to share myself and subjects that interest me with others. I believe that writing is the most important and effective way I can do that.

Xander and Karl write novels. Abby makes prints. Jon writes articles. For now, I blog and write essays. All are forms of artistic expression. I hope to find a wider audience for my writing soon. I’d love to see something of mine in print. It’s a form of validation and the primary way writers distribute their thoughts, insights, and experiences to a larger audience. I have something to say, and I’m anxious to say it. We’ll see how that all works out. For now it’s all about the writing…


  1. The suggestion that you write your memoirs, if only for friends and family, is a good one. With a career as wildly diverse as yours has been (pasta cook flys 737) you have to do it so those of us out here in friendworld can keep it all straight.

    Also, I thought some of your blogs from Saigon were terrific. Did you try sending any of those out, intact or rewritten, to magazines?

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