I have just finished watching Ken Burns’s WWII documentary The War. In it, an ex-pilot reads a letter he had written to his wife a year into his tour of duty. For months he had sanitized his letters home out of a kind of chivalry, hoping to protect his wife from the horrors of war, but he could at last no longer bear the divide between the reality he was living and the fiction he was writing. He told her the truth. He had written the letter when he was 21. His writing training had been the same as any liberal arts college grad. When the war ended he would go on to become an engineer. And yet, if you had told me this letter had been extracted from a novel about WWII, a novel written by an experienced novelist, a professional novelist, a novelist with 10,000 hours of writing practice and craft under his belt, I would have believed you. It was as vivid and original and compelling as anything I have read in my job preparing to interview professional, award-winning, bestselling novelists.
And yet he was not a novelist. If he ever tried to write a memoir, he never shared it with anyone. In fact, he never even shared that letter until the documentary. He stuffed it in a drawer after writing it. How is it, then, that this man was able to write so eloquently and yet was not A Writer? Because the extreme and unnatural experience of war, of facing death every single day, had summoned in him an uncluttered desire to express in words – his only means in that moment – precisely what it was he knew and was living. The force and velocity of that desire had focused his attention so completely that what we call craft arrived to serve it.
As a writer, I love these stories. I love to read beautiful writing by people who are not writers because it reminds me – yet again – that my real job is not to master my craft but to train my attention upon the source of my strongest creative impulse. When I do so, safe and alone at my desk, I can become like that pilot, having unbottled a genie whose first and only command is, “Express me, express me, express me!”
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