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6527212 October 22, 2010

Choosing Battles: John Gilstrap

" ... I have family and acquaintances who ostentatiously never read my books ..."

My latest novel, Dust, is dedicated to my mother. If you follow me on Facebook, you know that she has refused to finish reading the manuscript after having read just 26 pages.  Although she holds the opinion that those pages are beautifully written, and that the story is a page turner, it's just "too hard" for her to continue.  She can't seem to digest the truth in it, and the thought-provoking questions it poses about  religion, death, parenting of adult children, prejudice, and love.

She begged me not to publish it, to set it aside, to essentially bury it.  This is a form of censorship.

 The best literature is not only entertaining, it's also a window into the realities of life, which can make some folks uncomfortable. Although unofficial, I can  now count Dust among the following books, all of which have been victims of censorship:

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain)
As I Lay Dying (Faulkner)
Catch 22 (Heller)
Catcher in the Rye (Salinger)
Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury)
From Here to Eternity (Joyce)
Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
Dust (Przekop) ???

Each of these novels caused some level of discomfort simply by incorporating truth, whether it was a word, scenario, or thought-provoking question.  I dream that my writing may some day reach the level of these great literary works. Burying what I believe to be my best effort yet isn't going to get me there.  I just wish my mother could muster the strength and love to digest it.    

My guest today, New York Times bestselling author John Gilstrap says he also has relatives who haven't read his novels.  Is it just me, or is this downright bizarre?  If one of my relatives wrote a book, especially one that made it to the hallowed New York Times list, I'd be the first to read it. 

Perhaps these folks are simply not into reading.  My mother's a reader; she loves fiction. In her case, my novel is "painful" because it hits too close to home. In addition, it's "appalling" because she doesn't believe it fully supports her religious views.  Interestingly, when I set out the write the novel, I vowed that, once and for all, I was not going to let my mother's unyielding opinions influence my craft. I was not going to censor myself.  

John, a habitual observer of people, funnels this keen ability into numerous aspects of his life, and straight into his thrilling fiction.  One of the cool aspects of writing fiction is that all those motivations we as writers recognize or imagine come to life. Day to day, we don't often know if we're right about why someone said this or that, why they took a certain action, or chose not to.  In fiction, we can mold all those tiny or gigantic motivations into something cohesive.  When we get it right, truth glues it all together.

Great literature can expand who we are, as well as our ability to understand humanity.  As I move forward, my mother seems to be shrinking.  I wish I could somehow pull her along, but I'm feeling defeated. John says there's no shame in declaring defeat. He suggests that people should choose their battles.

I choose to push forward with my writing; I believe it's a battle I can win.  As for pleasing my mother, I'm trying to quit.

What's your writing story? How long did it take to establish yourself as an author? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?

My path is as twisted and meandering as any career could be. I started out in college wanting to be a journalist, but after a couple of years at a trade journal--that was the best I could do with a History degree--I realized it wasn't for me. It wasn't until I followed an entirely different path--safety engineering and 15 years in the fire and rescue service--that I finally found my way back to writing.

As for establishing myself as a writer, I'm not entirely sure that I've done that yet, even after seven published books and an eighth and ninth scheduled for the next two years.

I think that any artist who doesn't confess to some level of surprise to any commercial success is being disingenuous. This is a very capricious business. Like any other business, though, luck resides at the intersection of talent and hard work.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

My current focus is in creating my new series character, Jonathan Grave, a freelance hostage rescue specialist. The ah-ha moment, such as it was, came while researching my nonfiction book Six Minutes to Freedom, which introduced me to the world of covert operators. I met many fine people who do unspeakably heroic things while rarely getting credit outside of their closed community. Dealing with them, and with the operations they perform on foreign soil, I got the idea of creating a character who would show the same dedication to hostage rescue outside of the military environment. I'm thrilled to report that the two Jonathan Grave novels, No Mercy and Hostage Zero, are both doing very well.

For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer and why?

I think writing is defined by equal parts of both. I can create merely by thinking. We all do that every time we have a dream or play a what-if game in our heads. It's the expression of those thoughts that allows a writer (or any artist, for that matter) to share the experience with others. My need to write is fueled by my desire to entertain people by introducing them to the vivid figments of my imagination.

I don't believe in writer's block. I view the situation like priming a pump. If you just keep pumping, the water will eventually start to run. Do you ever run out of things to say, or do you experience an endless river? What are your thoughts on this?

I don't think I believe in writer's block either. That said, creativity frequently stops flowing for me, albeit temporarily. Usually, it has something to do with losing my way in a story. The only way to get through those rough times, though, is to sit down and muscle my way through.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

Creativity has posed far more solutions for me than problems. As a habitual observer of people my whole life, I feel that I understand motivations and reactions better than most, and that ability (whether its actual or merely imagined) has always given me confidence in my interactions with people. It's a skill that served me equally well in the fire service, the corporate world, and in the creative communities that I inhabit in the real world, and the ones that I create in my head.

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does writing sooth or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?

To tell the absolute truth, I've never used writing as therapy--at least not directly. I don't keep a journal, and never have. In troubling times, I find writing to be a burden that can pull me away from what seem like more important matters. For me, the act of writing, when it's going well delivers the rush that I would imagine a concert pianist while practicing alone. It brings a great sense of satisfaction to know that your skills are improving all the time, and as days turn into years, you begin to take solace in the fact that maybe--just maybe--you're beginning to understand what you're doing.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

Artistic success easily destabilizes fragile relationships--even more so if the success is both critical and financial. I think that most people on the sidelines of such success believe that artists who "make it"--however you want to define that--do so more because of luck than talent, and there's a tendency to discount the years of work and perseverance that allowed the luck to occur. I've lost track of the people who have told me over the years that they would write a book, too, if only they had the time. As if it's that easy.

In my own life, I have family and acquaintances who ostentatiously never read my books, or who go out of their way to say something dismissive or cutting in the presence of others. I think it's a defense mechanism, akin to dismissing a friend's weight loss, or diminishing a terrific grade point average by making fun of the course load or the school at which it was earned.

As for how to cope, I smile as appropriate and then take them off the guest list for my very cool book launch parties.

Successful writers often focus on the same genre. Have you ever grown tired of working on similar types of projects, and if so, how have you dealt with that?

This is actually a tough question because I write thrillers, and that is hardly a confining genre. That said, at this point in life, the only stories I want to tell are exciting ones. I like imagining people in jeopardy and and pretending that they have to fight their way to safety. Thus, I haven't had anything negative to deal with there.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?

As a professional writer--defined for the purpose of this question as one who has signed a contract to deliver two books in two years--writing goals are met exclusively through discipline, professionalism and perseverance. If I waited for my characters to speak to me, or any of the other BS motivations I hear at conferences, I would never get a single word onto the page. The trick is to write as often as you can, and to never miss a deadline. In my own case, I know that for every book, I will be a much slower writer for the first hundred pages than I will be for the last three hundred. It's just the way my process works, and I plan accordingly.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

I tell writers groups all the time that no one can thrust defeat on another party; that defeat can only be declared by the one who has given up. I don't believe in failure, and I don't believe in most forms of victim hood. If I don't succeed, it's because I screwed something up, and it's my job to fix whatever I broke and then try again. There's no shame in declaring defeat--I stopped attempting home repair projects years ago when I realized that I didn't want to do the work that would teach me the skills--but we should call it what it really is: quitting. People need to pick their battles accordingly.

That's a long mantra, I suppose, but it's important to me because it makes my world make sense. It gives me the confidence and the courage to keep hammering away at a business where success is judged largely by how well you perform this time. That's how we judge all professionals.

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6527212 September 15, 2010

Beating Back Grief: Darin Strauss

 "... grief, (and even the weird feeling of guilt without culpability) if not vanquished, can at least be beaten back."

Last week I had a challenging conversation with my chronically troubled mother. After she lectured me on how to vanquish the grief of my disturbing childhood by finally apologizing to her for my failures as a daughter, I explained that my grief can never be completely vanquished, only beaten back and put in its proper place.

She didn't get it.

Maybe you can understand.  I'm quite certain that my guest today, Darin Strauss, will get it.  In fact, I wish I'd had his interview answers in mind during that frustrating conversation with my mother.

I would have explained to her that during my childhood, she and I were headed in opposite directions. As I innocently drove toward some kind of magical future, she swerved time and time again, trying to escape the present. She crossed established boundaries, crashing into me. Each time I saw it coming, I desperately tried to miss her--to save her--but it was impossible. I did the best I humanly could to end her unhappiness and pain, the repetitive death of her spirit.

I do not owe her an apology.

Instead, I explained that because I was so young, because my body and soul were evolving at a cellular level, those experiences contributed to the core of who I am, bit by bit.  To reach into myself and yank all that out now would cripple me. I'm stronger with them than without them.

To quote Darin, "... of course I would change it if I magically could. But short of saving her life, if I were given the power to change places with my friend who sat in the passenger seat--in other words, someone who was pretty much unaffected by it--I wouldn't."

As Darin and I both know, some folks have it much worse than the two of us.  Everyone has their own aberrations and crosses to bear.  On Aberration Nation we've read about a woman who lost her entire family to war, a man who was stabbed 39 times as a child, people who were physically abused, etc.  Realistically, we'll never know who feels pain the deepest, who cries the most tears, or who has the most regret.  We all live in our own self-contained emotional jungles. Even when we're blessed to have visitors who share our internal world, they must still see it through their own eyes.

I suspect my mother's view has always been distorted by all that constant swerving and crashing.  When I was a child, she used to inform me with a harsh tone, "This is not your life, Penelope."  That always bothered me, as if she were belittling my very existence, turning me into some sort of ghost revolving around her.  I remember standing there, thinking, but I'm here, aren't I? I'm living. I desperately wanted to be in my own life; I wanted to be the hero of the story.

Darin has gifted me with the notion that perhaps in a way, my mother was right.  As he so simply phrases it below, "It was her story, and my part in it was to go on living."


What's your story as a writer, and how does your new memoir HALF A LIFE factor in?

I always loved books, and first attempted a novel as a 4th grader (Army of Frankensteins, a young American general, shockingly bad writing). But I didn't think of becoming a writer professionally until college. I didn't know anyone who'd tried it. But PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT changed my life. I thought: I can write about this?

HALF A LIFE is a big part of my story.  I was a normal high school kid who had a car accident. A girl cut across two lanes of a busy highway and crashed right into my car. She died. I was changed by this in ways I only fully understood 20 years later. The book is an attempt not just to tell the story and make sense of it, but to also show that grief (and even the weird feeling of guilt without culpability), if not vanquished, can at least be beaten back.

With regard to HALF A LIFE, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

My new book is all about ah-ha moments. I thought I would never write about this. (I published three novels before this book, and assumed I'd just go on writing fiction.) I found myself feeling better about the accident than I ever had before. I didn't know why, but dealing with it as a writing project--something you tinker with, shape, and turn off at night--helped. I felt some guilt about that--the fact that it was getting easier.

Then I learned that the way psychologists now deal with Complicated Grief Disorder (a disease of people much more floored even than I was) is that they have sufferers speak into a tape recorder about what is the most painful thing for them. And then the patients have to play that tape for themselves every night. This sounds like mental torture. But the transformation of personal grief into an object that can be turned off is the best path to healing. And I stumbled into it.

But when you write a memoir (something as a fiction writer I was sure, again, that I'd never do) you learn things all the time. If you're doing your job, anyway. Oh, yeah--I forgot that this happened. That was a notion I had daily.

Aberration Nation currently focuses on creativity, but it's also about how life's aberrations (whether physical, emotional, or situational) can become the kernel of our strength. In Half a Life, you write about a tragic event that shaped your life. No one wants to believe that someone's

This is kind of the nexus of the book's questions. Someone died. So of course I would change it if I magically could. But short of saving her life, if I were given the power to change places with my friend who sat in the passenger seat -- in other words, someone who was pretty much unaffected by it -- I wouldn't.

That's something I never would have believed in the years and years I was agonizing. But it made me who I am. The accident happened when I was 18. It wasn't my fault that she died; she swerved in front of me, and I tried my best to avoid her. Going over that one-tenth of a second for decades was an act of futility. I tried my human best to miss her, and I didn't miss her, but that was all I could do. And so I realized it wasn't even a story about me. It was her story, and my part in it was to go on living.

But yes, it made me stronger, I hope. And I also hope more thoughtful (in every sense).

When tragedy strikes, many of us tend to wallow over our imperfections and situations as if nothing could possibly be worse. We feel sorry for ourselves, guilty, and undeserving of happiness. We forget that there is always someone out there who has it worse than us. How were you able to avoid letting those emotions sabotage your happiness and success?

I was both wallowing (I felt terrible guilt).  I was also deeply, heart-hurtingly aware that people had it worse than I did (the girl who died's parents).  After they told me they knew for sure that it wasn't my fault--and that they expected me to live twice as successfully and well now, because I was living for two people--and then followed that up by suing me for millions of dollars, I was very wallow-y. That was heavy for an 18-year-old. (If the court case went terribly wrong for me, I could have had my wages garnished forever.) Plus I kept wondering if I could have swerved differently, or done something. So those thoughts did diminish my happiness. Which seemed fitting; again, even though it wasn't my fault, a girl died because my car hit her. That will change you. The key was not letting it define who I was.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I think my career has caused aberrations for my wife. As a writer you're never 100 percent off-duty. So sometimes I'm not as present with her as I should be; I'm thinking of a character, a plot turn, a metaphor. But that sounds pretentious. I think it's also been great. And as Philip Roth wrote -- a character who was a writer was at his brother's funeral, and deciding how he would stage the scene in a novel -- this job even fucks up grief. (But that's probably to the good.)

For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer and why?

I think writing is all expression. Expressing a detail, an idea, a half-formed idea. But expression is creation, right? I mean, for a writer -- expression equals creation.

In general, is writing therapeutic for you? How was writing HALF A LIFE therapeutic?

I used to subscribe to something that the writer William Gass said. (And I'm going to misquote it, probably.) "If writing is cathartic, you're not doing it right, because it's so hard--getting the prose and the form right--you can't have time to think about yourself."

But that is what makes it cathartic, I now realize. Losing yourself in the "craft" aspects of it, finding the write punctuation mark, deciding if this paragraph should follow that one, this is the kind of thing that takes you out of your grief.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I had girlfriends who didn't get it. I once told a woman that I'd had a hard day, and she laughed. "How hard can it be? You're just making stuff up." That kind of thing.

My wife is very understanding. But it bothers her, even now, how much I work. I wrote for a few hours yesterday (Labor Day), and that drove her nuts. It's something we always have to deal with--manging each other's expectations.     

Was there ever a time when you just felt like giving up? On yourself? On writing? If so, how were you able to cross that bridge?

Sure. You feel that all the time. To quote Roth again, "The difference between an Olympic swimmer and a professional writer is that the swimmer doesn't feel like she's drowning every time she goes in."  So we all feel it--even the Philip Roths of the world.  But the key is: keep getting in the pool.

If you could tell the world one thing about overcoming tragedy, what would that be?

Too hard to answer. I guess, try to face it. Do the Complicated Grief Disorder therapy that I mentioned above. When you're ready--and only then--force yourself to play the tape over and again.

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6527212 June 29, 2010

The Mentor: Tom Grimes

" ... I have come to accept that this isn’t the only way to understand, and to be, who I am, which is a guy who’s done a lot of other things in his life than write books."

mentor, adviser, master, guide, preceptor

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know how much I oscillate between feeling invincible and defeated. I make plans and set goals. I consistently carry out my end of the bargain, but when the time comes for others to lend a hand things get complicated. You may have read that throughout my writing career (if we can call it that), I've had various agents who have downright died or shifted focus. My work has been read by quite a few A-list editors who believe I'm talented but have yet to place money and their reputation on that bet. I've painted with the support of a great NYC-based artist and gallery owner, who's now tied up with some other projects.  In the meantime, I spent years building a career in the pharmaceutical industry, obtained a master's degree from an engineering department, wrote a business book for McGraw-Hill.

I know I still have time to achieve my creative goals but sometimes I get tired of trying and trying and trying. I work to improve with each word, wondering why it's taking me so long to hit that magic level of perfection. I push myself with each painting.  When I think about who I am and what I've accomplished, I always tunnel into the creative side of my life, especially the writing. Sometimes, all the other things just seem like extra stuff I do to fill the time ... mindless like watching TV. 

But lately I've realized that I'm actually a composite of all that I've set out to do and all that I've achieved.  Nothing is mindless. Nothing is wasted. Nothing I've accomplished has been easy; I've worked hard.  Something made me choose to study Biology in college rather than English. Something made me want to work hard and progress in the pharmaceutical industry. Something motivated me to get that master's degree while I was writing a book for McGraw-Hill and taking care of a toddler. All that was me pushing myself towards something I wanted.

A couple of years ago I left Johnson & Johnson thinking that I had to finally be true to myself.  I had to accept who I am as a creative individual. I wrote a third novel and half of a fourth. I picked up a paintbrush. I started this blog. I made numerous new connections in the publishing arena and in the art world. All good things!

People have said that I can't have it all, and perhaps that's true. Perhaps I can't be a writer and paint while navigating and building a corporate career. But I look back and see that I was doing it all along. It's all about time management, goal setting, patience, tenacity, and follow through. And I'm good at those things, too.

My guest today, Tom Grimes, has spent his life focusing on a dream eerily similar to mine. I recently read his new memoir, Mentor, which will be launched on August 1st.. His touching story centers around his relationship with Frank Conroy, the writing guru who for years shepherded the Iowa Writers' Workshop.  Through his book and this interview, Tom has given me a lot to think about.  Above all other criteria, that's the kind of writer I love. One who somehow inspires me to think in new and powerful ways. One who by virtue of the words he chooses to share becomes a mentor.

In your new memoir, Mentor (Tin House Books, August 2010), you write about knowing and not knowing who you are. Can you tell us who you are?

Writing the book told me who I am. I'm a writer, and I've been one since I was nineteen. I don't have an identity, really, outside of defining myself as a writer. I've had successes in my life other than what I've accomplished as a writer, but they don't mean that much to me. In retrospect, however, reducing my entire sense of identity to myself success or failure as a writer was a dumb and, to an extent, a dangerous thing to do. But I didn't understand this. More importantly, I didn't feel it. I was emotionally incapable of taking, or at least unwilling to take, pleasure in my other accomplishments. This wasn’t fair to myself – but then, I do have a penchant for self-destructive behavior – but it also wasn’t considerate with regard to the people who had helped me accomplish those things. Before I wrote this book, I said to another writer, “A lot of people think I have a great life. The problem is, I’m not one of them.” I’ve always wanted to be a "great" writer. I didn’t care about being rich or famous. I needed to believe that I was writing books that would be read and would be meaningful to people a hundred years from now. I haven’t really surrendered that hope, but I have come to accept that this isn’t the only way to understand, and to be, who I am, which is a guy who’s done a lot of other things in his life than write books.

For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer and why?

I never think about who will read what I write, while I’m working. So, it’s creation, I suppose. I enjoy “making” a book. Whenever I’m writing, the world disappears, time dissolves, and I’m no longer “me,” and I enjoy that feeling. But I don’t feel a “need” to express myself.

 I don't believe in writer's block. I view the situation like priming a pump. If you keep pumping, the water will eventually flow. What are your thoughts on this?

Do you believe the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? 

Both. I focused so completely on being a writer that I never really paid attention to other possibilities in my life. I worked seven days a week, three to four hours a day. When I had a job that began at eight a.m., I got up at four a.m., then sat at table with a cup of coffee, a notebook, and a pencil, trying to make sentences without falling asleep. But this kind of behavior, which some might consider pathological -- I mean, who locks him or herself in a room for hours at a time to make things up? – also kept me sane. It didn’t fill the emptiness I felt inside, which had been there from the time I was a kid. Nor did it silence the voices of self-doubt. But it kept them at bay.

Have you ever had to deal with people failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I grew up in a house with very few books and parents who didn’t read – my father dropped out of school after he finished the eighth grade, my mother graduated from high school and became a typist in the office where she met my father. Consequently, they didn’t understand the fact that I could not understand chemistry and calculus, which was necessary to get into medical school. (They wanted me to be a dentist.) That I aced lit classes was meaningless to them. When I told them I was giving up the, for me, (ludicrous) pursuit of dentistry and told them that I wanted to be a writer, my father essentially disowned me over Sunday dinner. Only when my first novel was a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” did my mother get it. By then, my father was dead, so he never did.

I often ask if there is a difference between being talented and being creative. What are your thoughts on this and how does this distinction play out with the writers you've known or taught in academia? Are they all both talented and creative?

Tough question. As a creative writing teacher and the director of an MFA Program in Creative Writing, I look for signs of talent or a distinctive voice when I read the hundreds of applications we receive each year. An applicant’s work never has to be anywhere near “perfect.” I just want to find a seed that might be nurtured, if looked after properly. Talent and creativity go hand and hand. It’s just that, early one in a writer’s life, the two aren’t necessarily in sync.

 Based on your experience, what are some of the most common questions or issues that cause writing students to struggle?

Avoiding conflict in their stories, and tossing out the best parts of what they’d originally written. It never fails. When I say, or the other students in class say, it seems like such and such should have happened, the writer says, I wrote that, then cut it. And it’s true. They’re often afraid of, or can’t quite seem to see, what needs to be dramatized in their stories. I always say, “Give me the TV Guide description of this story. If it says, Bill goes out, who’ll want to watch the show? If it says, Bill goes out, then jumps off a bridge, the show might get a decent Nielsen rating because people will want to know why Bill jumped off the bridge.” Often, students lack the craft to make things happen. Learning certain aspects of craft with regard to stories and novels doesn’t guarantee that someone will become a good writer. What it does guarantee is that the person will learn how to ask him or herself what mistakes he or she might be making. If you can ask this question, you can answer it. That’s when a student’s confidence kicks in.
 
Henry David Thoreau said, "How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!" How important is it for those who self-identify as writers at an early age to seek out formal, academic training? Is academic training or life experience more important for the writer? When a writer needs both, I wonder if an intense drive for one can potentially overshadow the other. What are your thoughts on this?

Each writer makes his or her life differently. Some go to an MFA Program, some don’t. The main thing is to decide what you need. Do you need to be part of a community of writers? Enroll in an MFA Program. Happy on your own? Don’t. In either case, read. Great books are your best teachers.

In your opinion, what transforms a novel into art? What elements lift a particular novel far above the thousands that are written each year?

There’s no answer to this question other than to say that the depth and breadth of feeling, the willingness to explore any subject, and the knowledge that you have aesthetic freedom to do write about whatever you want to might produce a work of art. For example, who would have thought, “Oh, I’ll write a novel about a pederast. That’ll get me into the literary history books.” It sounds absurd, until you read Lolita. A huge, important, and universal subject like war has yielded plenty of forgettable novels. It isn’t the scope of the subject that makes something a work of art; it’s an author’s unique sensibility with regard to his or her subject.
 
What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

I make up my life from day to day (more or less). Most people do; we’re always dealing with what life flings our way. A writer simply has the impulse to write some of it down.

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