Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Storysurfing: The New Writer's Act

Every time I've participated in some kind of online writing forum over the last few years, there is always a long, hotly debated, and unnecessary thread about what makes a "real" writer and "real" writing. Because blogging makes publication so accessible for everyone, there are a precious few who would like to define "writing" as something other (almost anything) than putting words on a blog. Many participants (usually the unpublished ones) get very hung-up on whether or not they're "real" writers.

And then there's the self-descriptions of those who are writing, or writing and publishing, or writing and posting. You look at an author's mini-bio, and they're described in one or two of the following ways: short story writer, essayist, novelist, biographer, blogger, reviewer, journalist, writer, storyteller, author, nonfiction writer ... all of which clutters up people's ideas of what a writer is or does, and limits the writer's own perceptions of what he or she is doing when inspiration strikes and they make the effort to put words on a page.

Any "real" writer knows in his or her bones that the essays, stories, novels, and blogs are all different consequences of engaging long-term in the same activity. No matter what your final product is -- an essay in Harper's or a blog read by your friends or oral narratives told at a storytelling festival -- they all come from the act of attempting to take experience and shape it into story. It doesn't matter whether that story is fiction or nonfiction, short or long, read by millions in book form or ten people looking at a blog.

We need a new word for this act, to cut through all the crap about what constitutes a "real" writer, and I've had one in mind for a long time: storysurfer.

Why storysurfing? This act, that of reaching into or out to experience, life, memory, and trying to shape it into a narrative that might resonate with others, reminds me a great deal of windsurfing. You are at the same time pulling and being pulled, letting go and holding on, riding the elements and letting them take you. That's what writing is, the whole act. All those titles above -- essayist, novelist, blogger -- they just describe the product. The act is its own thing, separate from the end result and separate even from the experience it's pulling on.

Beginning writers will often hear, if they're taking a workshop or in an MFA program or reading a creativity self-help book, that "a writer is someone who writes." But there's more to it than that. It's not just putting words on a page. Storysurfing is a full-body act. A storysurfer is someone who rides life, and harnesses their experience to the page.