Monday, October 12, 2009


by Gina Sestak

I've speculated in prior posts about the difference between writers and other people. There is, of course, the obvious one: writers write. Other people may talk about writing, but they don't really do it.

Beyond that basic fact there are other distinctions. Writers enjoy words. We like to talk and read about word origins, and to debate usage and grammar in our critique groups. We like the way words sound, and how they look upon the page. We like our silly typos - in the midst of a horrific torture scene, I found myself repeatedly typing "gingernails" instead of "fingernails."

But other aspects of the writing life are more problematic. In a prior post, I mentioned standing by my dying aunt's bedside, unable to stop myself from mentally translating everything that happened into sentences. Those sentences formed the basis for my essay, Breathe Out, that won a PennWriters non-fiction prize one year. I think it captured the experience of what happens when a family gives up hope, authorizes the breathing machine to be turned off, then spends those agonizing bedside hours waiting for someone to die. I'm proud of the piece, but I felt like a ghoul while writing it.

This past August I spent a week and a half in Shadyside Hospital having gallbladder surgery. There were complications so, in addition to the extended stay, I got this lovely huge incision scar that makes my abdomen look as if it had been designed by Tom Savini. I don't want to talk about that now, though -- maybe in a future post. Now I want to talk about my roommate.

Ellie [not her real name] came into the hospital about mid-way through my stay. She's a 93-year old woman who needed emergency surgery and who, after the first day or so, began to speak almost non-stop. I'm not sure who she was talking to. Clearly not to me. I should point out that I love to eavesdrop, which is another trait that distinguishes writers from other people. Other people get annoyed about having to listen to someone else ramble. I get fascinated. She didn't tell stories, exactly. Whoever she was talking to already knew the substance of the conversation. She got belligerent. She challenged the unseen hearer, and used language that I wouldn't have expected a church-going woman of her age to even know. As one of the staff members put it, Ellie has a mouth like a trucker, although most truckers I know don't cuss half as much.

The staff kept offering to move me, or move her, and seemed confused that I kept turning them down. I wanted to listen!

I should mention that the hospital employees - nurses, aides (now known as "patient care technicians"), dietary, housekeeping, and other personnel - were very patient and kind to Ellie, even when she called them names and made inappropriate remarks. Watching their reactions was fascinating.

So I've listed a few things that distinguish writers from other people. What other traits can you think of?


Annette said...

I wonder if Ellie is the same woman my mom was stuck with as a roommate at the Health Center a couple of years ago. Problem was, they didn't offer to switch rooms for Mom and she isn't a writer, so she didn't care to listen to the angry rambling.

Martha Reed said...

Hi, Gina.

I think writers also try to make sense of disconnected bits of information by hooking them together in new patterns to see if they work. Probably a remnant of some survival technique. Sometimes it doesn't work, sometimes its new fiction!

Gina said...

Good point, Martha.

PatRemick said...

Great post, Gina. I think I've finally surrendered to the reality that we writers ARE different. I named my personal blog "it's all novel material" because to us, it is -- no matter how ridiculous, painful or even boring. The other day I was walking the dog in the woods and started thinking about a story of what might happen if someone evil suddenly emerged from the trees --and nearly scared myself to death!

My writer's curse is that I find myself addicted to book readings & signing by other authors. Unfortunately (or not), my local independent bookstore hosts 100 events a year with many fabulous and well-known authors. While it's free entertainment if I don't buy the book and intellectually stimulating most times, it does take me away from my writing time!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I've never been a word kind of guy. Sure I get persnickety when people use the wrong words or forms like say..."irregardless." But overall, I'm more of a plot guy.

Which leads me to my issue. Since I've been writing on a serious level, I don't just enjoy novels or movies anymore. I have a hard time not analyzing and just enjoying. Several movies and books I used to enjoy have been ruined because I've now noticed things that used to brush by me without notice. Ploys to increase the tension, etc.

I never used to think about how deadly my meat tenerizer would be either.

Joyce Tremel said...

Like Pat, I can turn almost anything into a "what if" situation. It's hard to be bored. I can turn even that interminable wait in the doctor's office into something more deadly than the passage of time.

Jenna said...

I have to agree with Will (as well as with everyone else, but specifically in this) in that crime writers, at least, see things differently from other people. Other people notice the nice, new car smell... while we wonder how many bodies'll fit in the trunk. It's a hell of a way to live.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Exactly Jennie. I knew before I bought my convertible that I'd have to cut the body up to fit it in the trunk with the top down.

Gina said...

Joyce, a wait in the doctor's office once inspired a short poem when I noticed a door labeled "Patient Toilet."

The patient toilet waits in vain,
I cannot fill that cup again.

Sorry for the bathroom humor.

Joyce Tremel said...

Gina, I have a husband and two sons and worked with all guys. I'm used to bathroom humor!

Theresa McG said...

Words are fun. And if you have a speech impedement, dyslexia or live with someone almost deaf, speech and hearing can be hilarious. Unique accents and getting the wrong word is interesting. Most rock climbers don't try to climb the Tower of Babble, but I think writers do. Another distinctive writer trait.