February 4, 2015

On Becoming a Writer

Just to be clear, let me see if I’m describing you right: You love to read, you always have. You think words are powerful and beautiful and devastating when used correctly. You have a story, ideas, a lot to say. These things rattle around in your brain and if you don’t get them on paper, YOU JUST MIGHT DIE. You’ve always been a good communicator; you prayed for an essay test over those devil-sanctioned multiple-choice scantrons. You stare at your laptop like a frenemy. If you could just sit down with it for an extended time and write your words, or maybe if you could just set it on fire and be free of it, or both, you would finally be happy. And, of course, there is teeny tiny, oh so tiny part of you, so tiny you have to whisper it, tiny tiny little bit that says I want to be published because that will make me real.
What do I know of writing? I still feel like a hack that snuck in the side door at just the right moment and no one kicked me out of the party. I really do. You might think after writing 10 books I would feel like an “expert,” but you would be so very wrong, good reader. I’m still stumbling through, wondering when I’ll be a grown up who masters her field.

I can give you no expert advice. Absolutely none. But I can tell you what I’ve learned and I can certainly tell you what didn’t work. Let’s start with this:

Don’t disqualify yourself from writing before you even get started. A writer is a person who writes words. The end. Do you know who asked me to write my first book? Zero people. No one said, you should do this hard thing or we really want to hear from you in print form. Writer: 1, People Who Asked Me to Write: 0. I wrote for two reasons:

I wanted to and had something to say.

I can’t help you process the cover design. It was a different time. Go with God.
Granted, that is not much to build a career on, but who knew I would make a career out of writing?? I didn’t start with even an inkling of that grand notion. Hell, I was raising babies and toddlers and didn’t even own a laptop. I didn’t even have an email address and it was 2004 (I am frequently late to current developments). I was not set up to be a career writer, but that is not why you start writing. It can’t be.

If you want to and have something to say, write. This first step is a doozy. If you are waiting for someone to beg you to do the work or promise to give you a huge advance or rearrange your schedule to clear the time or somehow make this whole part easier, you might as well take your little dream for a nice long drive out into the country and say goodbye. Writers write. It is one of our main characteristics, as a point of fact. Writers don’t wait for someone else to tell them they should or can. You should and you can.

Next, I am devastated to bring this bad news, but writing requires work. Kind of hard, brutal, sanity-threatening work. All the writing dreams in your head have to transition to your ten fingers on a keyboard, and I’m afraid there is no other way. (I’m sorry. Take your time.) Work requires time, which of course, you have none of. This is the writer’s dilemma. You will not miraculously become a writer by carrying on exactly like you are. It’s a whole thing and you have to make room for it.

Maybe that is in the earliest wee hours, which is when legions of writers make the magic happen. Maybe you engineer a child swap or childcare to create time. Maybe you let something go and free up a slot. Know this: something will have to give. And I mean that sincerely. Writing will take time away from other things: sometimes kids, sometimes spouse, sometimes a thing you used to do, sometimes sleep. Work does this. You don’t get to keep everything as is and also add writing. That is not how the time/space continuum works. I have to regularly tell my kids:

Me:  I’ll be in my office working.
Kids:  What do you even do out there? (If you think 10 books will up your credibility at home, think again, grasshopper.)
Me:  I’m writing. It is my work and it is a real job.
Kids:  *side eye*
Me:  IT IS.

Of course my kids wish I would devote every spare second to maintain their place in the center of the universe, but writers write and writing is work and work takes time. And it is good work. It means something. It is noble and important. It always has been.

I remember crying a river when my mom went back to college when we were in elementary, middle, and high school because she was less available to cater to our every whim, but it very soon became a source of great pride for me, because I watched my mom do meaningful, hard work that mattered. She went for it, right in the middle of living life. As it turned out, I needed a mom who mothered, dreamed, worked, and achieved. We all did.

Now, put your writing out there somewhere where actual people will read it: a blog, a newsletter you made up, guest posts, your community, your church, any local outlet, anywhere there are readers. Don’t tell me you can’t handle this; you want to be a writer that no one ever reads?? Nonsense. Readers make you a better writer. Writing for readers makes you a better writer. This is not just about “developing a platform” (gag) but getting out of your own head and engaging with other human beings. Additionally, good writing gets noticed, especially in today’s online space, so be a “writer with readers” – strong talent does not go undetected for long.

Develop a thicker skin immediately. (May I gently suggest that if your skin is paper thin, writing might be the worst profession on earth for you.) As shocking as it is, not everyone will love everything you say, and you need to be able to deal with criticism without coming unraveled. Ask any writer. Furthermore, if every reader always loves every word you ever write, I mean this nicely, but you are not writing anything that interesting. Write the real stuff, the hard stuff, the true stuff. Literature is too saturated for cotton candy fluff. Most readers are craving truth-tellers who don’t sanitize their words to avoid criticism. Be brave.

Finally, everyone wants to be published but few want to work on the craft of writing. While the internet has provided unprecedented opportunity for the new writer, it has also elevated sensationalized link-bait over truly good composition. We know this because we read utter crap constantly and then discover one astounding piece written with precision and talent and intelligence, and we go WHOA. Take a class, take a course, go to a writer’s conference (this is both how I developed and got initially published), join a writer’s group, read books as a reader (writers read), read books as a writer (writers learn), hire an editor who doesn’t feel as precious about all your words as you do, invite constructive criticism, pay attention to what good writing does: How does it use language? How does it construct sentences? How does it move the story along? How does it sound? How does it feel?

Doctors do the work to be good doctors. Teachers do the work to become better teachers. Writers cannot imagine that because they have the dexterity to type words on a keyboard their craft does not need development. Worry less about getting published and more about being good at what you do. Much like the Lord, the eyes of publishers roam about the earth searching for undiscovered writers who can actually compose a compelling sentence (2 Chron. 16:9…extremely compromised).

Some postscripts:

Do not become immobilized by good writing already out there. Stop that this instant. Literature is not an exercise in scarcity. The world always needs good writing. There is room for you. Don’t be intimidated by successful writers; be inspired by them. Every good writer wrote his or her first piece at one point. Do your time; there is space for you at the party.

Just because one person says your writing is crap doesn’t mean it is. Or maybe it is, but that is not the end of your story. You cannot bail with your first rejection, first critique, first outright troll. You’ll be done by the end of the week. Writing is a synonym for perseverance. Keep going, learn from criticism, reject the haters, onward. The Harry Potter series was rejected 12 times before it got picked up, and IT IS DOING OKAY NOW.

Getting published will not make you miraculously happy, rich (oh my gosh), or validated. I’m laughing as I type that because I know you are thinking: YES IT WILL. I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU SAY. It won’t. You’ll still be in your weird mind wondering why your life is mostly the same. You won’t arrive, but it is still worth the work. It is worth every second.

Cheering for you. Write on, writer.
 Write your words.

Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work. That’s what I have to say.
The second is only a part of the first. . . .
There are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living.
But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life.
Your particular life. Your entire life.
Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer.
Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart.
—Anna Quindlen

Writer’s Conferences

Do your own research here. The type of conference you attend depends on the type of writing you do and your audience: Children? Fiction? Christian? General market? Memoir? Nonfiction? Buy a Market Guide in your genre, which will include conferences, publishers, and agents for this calendar year. I only have my story, but a writer’s conference was my front door into publishing. Additionally, while there, I learned skills during my “writing nonfiction tract” that I use to this day from Dr. Dennis Hensley, writing professor at Taylor University. Easily one of the best teachers I’ve ever sat under. I could have listened to him for 12 hours a day. I practically clung to his ankles as I was leaving as a 29-year-old dreamer.

Books on Writing

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
On Writing by Stephan King
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

What can you add, writers? Great websites? Tips? Are you one of those wringing her hands and waiting for someone to give you permission to go for it? PERMISSION GRANTED.

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