I’m not picking on my brother-in-law, but he’s the latest person to have asked me this question: Can you write something for me? This familiar and frequent question is usually preceded by, “You’re the writer”… as if we writers are the only ones who know how to pick up a pencil.
I suspect you’ve heard this question, too. A friend or family member needs a “blurb,” an obituary, a garage sale sign, and they come to you. It happens at work and on every committee you’ve ever volunteered for…“you’re the writer…” and you suddenly find yourself editing your office’s newsletter or designing the program for the library fundraiser gala.
I am sure (most of) these folks are well-intentioned; they probably think they are commending your talents and affirming your skill, all the while getting out of doing something they themselves abhor. But it’s not really like that at all. It’s more like asking your electrician friend to rewire your garage or your sister-in-law the accountant to do your taxes; you wouldn’t do that. But a writer? Writers write all the time…what’s a little grant application to them?
Of course sometimes, at least for me, the request is tolerable and the purpose is reasonable and in most all of those cases, I oblige. Like the photographer who takes his cousin’s family Christmas picture and the artist who designs the logo for her best friend’s new business…these things happen.
In the case of my brother-in-law, his request was for an account of an experience we all shared while driving through southern Italy. My husband and I, his brother and wife and their son were all snug in a rented Fiat 500 on our way back from Potenza, the largest city to the east of the small town in Basilicata where my husband is from. His town, Muro Lucano, is built into a hill beneath a castle and it is visible from across a valley spotted with farms and small villages. It is breathtaking. As we reached that valley we saw, hanging in the sky as if it were there all the time, a magnificent double rainbow. We had to stop the car to take in its beauty. Naturally, we all grabbed our phones and took pictures, none of which really captured the scale of what we were seeing. I said something like, “Some things defy photographic evidence; it’s up to each of us to remember it.” That’s when my brother-in-law turned to me and said, “Can you write about it for me?”
This was one of those times I was happy to do it. Beholding the rainbow as we approached the town was significant to him because he and his son were seeing his hometown together for the first time. The rainbow, for my brother-in-law, made this first view significant. I wrote about it; I turned it into a fable and sent it to him. He wrote back that he was happily satisfied.
But was he really? Writers process experience in the form of writing, for personal and professional use. Our experiences manifest themselves into text, tucked away in our brains to breathe life into a story or to simply inform our writing practice. My perception of coming upon a huge rainbow suspended over a valley dotted with farmhouses and fields triggers my writer’s brain to form words about it--my words, my perception. It’s what we writers do, isn’t it? I really don’t know if how I interpreted this particular vision accurately described my brother-in-law’s experience, but I gave it a shot.
This question will never go away. We will always be asked if we can write something for someone and the result will incorporate the writer’s experience, insight and proficiency. I bet even Stephen King gets asked to write the article about his nephew’s Honor Society induction for the school paper, even it if involves more blood than expected. But that’s the risk--and the reward--when a writer is asked: Can you write something for me?