“Oh, You’re a Writer?”
If you’ve ever introduced yourself as “a writer” to anyone, you know what comes next. We’ve all heard it. “Oh, I tried to write something once! I got about twenty pages in and trashed it.” Everyone on the planet, it seems, has dreamed of writing the next bestseller, and has even pursued it for a whole ten minutes.
My response to this is generally something in between blank astonishment and inarticulate rage.
First of all, you trashed twenty pages? Okay, if you couldn’t get your first sentence off the ground and gave up, I could understand, but twenty pages?? Do you have any idea how much blood and sweat and pacing and sleepless nights go into twenty pages?? Some writers would commit murder for twenty pages! Take a wheelbarrow full of money and gasoline and toss a match in. Lop off their hand at the wrist. (Their non-writing hand). Sell firstborn. You get the idea…
(A good friend of mine told me his mother once wrote an entire novel and trashed it. An entire novel!! I feel a little sick even imagining it.)
Second, trashing something, if we do decide to do it, is not the end of writing. It’s part of the process. You think professional writers don’t ball things up and throw them in the trash bin? (Okay, nowadays we right click and “move to recycle bin”, but same thing). That’s what writing is. You wrote something that didn’t flow out of your fingertips and land on the page in a state of divine perfection? Well, welcome to the writing life, friend! To the life of everybody that’s ever written anything. Writing is re-writing. (I re-wrote this sentence, the one you’re reading now, at least five times.) Writing is not channeling divinity, even if it does sometimes feel that way. It’s largely shutting out the clutter so you can hear what your own brain is trying to scream at you. And guess what? It’s not easy to do. Even for the pros. You decided you weren’t a writer when you trashed something? That friend, was the moment you became a writer.
Third, you tried to write something “once”? We write things every day! We write texts, emails, messages, labels and links. Shopping lists, honey-do lists, reminders, letters. We google, skype and surf. We tweet, we post, we babble, we self-promote. We write contracts, bills, plans and proposals. We write our name on things. We order things, we sign up for things. We leave comments on blogs. (Hmm.. subtle hint, there.) Trust me, if you are human and alive in 21st century, your currency is in words. In fact, while it may once have been rare, nowadays it strikes me as fairly ludicrous to call oneself a “writer”; a bit like saying “I am a breather.” “Oh really? I tried breathing once…” Try to go through a day without using a written word to express your inner world to someone outside you. Go ahead. I’ll wait. I give you ten minutes before you’re back with a sheepish grin on your face.
We’re all writers. We all have the dream of writing the next bestseller because we all believe, on some level, that we can do it. And here’s what nobody else is willing to tell you: we’re all right. Everyone can write. We’re doing it all the damn time.
This constitutes the well-reasoned response I would like to give to the “I wrote something once” comment. But, alas, in the moment, things never come out smooth and well-reasoned, do they? Some version of it comes out, sputtering and inarticulate. And the poor person, who was just trying to express some admiration or show polite interest, has now been alienated, horrified, and had confirmed their very worst opinion of anyone who calls himself a “writer”. Hence, the whole reason to write things in the first place: speech is sadly inadequate. Pretty much… all the time.
Writing is for Everyone
The point is, people think “writing” is something special and forbidden them. Available only to the select few. A view which writers, generally, do nothing to dissuade.
So what I’d like to do, with some upcoming posts, is de-mystify the whole “writing” thing for those who are dabbling their feet in it, but who think they don’t possess the magic talent, or hold the sacred keystone. Maybe get a few people to grab those manuscripts back out of the trash and have another go at them. God knows what ingenious creations we’ve lost to the wastebaskets and digital recycling bins of the world, only because of some false mystification of the label “writer”. (And what god-awful cack we’ve had to read in the meantime.)
I’d like to share some of the things that I’ve agonized over, as a beginning writer, to anticipate some of the things you probably will agonize over, and frankly, spare you the trouble, if I can. “Being a writer” is not a holy order, available to only the select few with gifts from the gods (difficult as it may be to get a writer to admit this). It’s a craft, and it’s one most of us, in various degrees, already possess. You are already a writer. The difference between you and your favorite bestselling author? The author has figured out, through much experimentation and failure, how to shut off the noise in their brains and listen. (And, likely, also has a good editor).
What “Experts” Can Go Do
But what qualifies me to teach anything about writing? Am I an expert?
No way. I’m still learning, like you. I’ll look back on this post in a couple years and cringe. But this is kind of the point. We don’t need experts to tell us how to write. We just have to do it. And keep doing it. And mess it up and do it horribly, until we write something… not horrible. It’s not a talent that belongs only to experts. Sure there are experts, but there are expert food critics and that doesn’t stop us eating, does it? Writing, like food, is for all of us. Everyone is a writer who has a brain that is screaming at them to say something but knows that their lips, lungs and tongue are inadequate to the task. Am I on safe ground in saying that’s probably, what… everyone?
Also, why do I need to be an expert to share what I’ve learned? We’re all teaching each other things, all the time. It’s what our species does. Frankly, I’ve gotten some crummy advice over the years from so-called experts, and I’ve gotten some great advice from people who claimed no expertise but simply taught themselves by doing, and if I can pass some of it on to someone who‘s struggling, then by golly, I’m going to. Expert or no.
So here is a basic run down of the posts I have in mind. These are either posts I’ve already written, are in the works, or have had a long-burning desire to write. Things I’ve learned about the trade and how to get past its initial, inevitable obstacles:
- How to Finish Your Novel
- Or any writing project, really. Using a system of quotas to generate momentum and feel a real sense of progress on your project.
- Say Goodbye to Your Genre!
- It’s the job of critics, readers and bookstores to classify your work. Its your job to break those artificial barriers and soar wherever your mind wants to take you.
- How to Find Your Ideal Writing Time
- Welcome those interruptions! Accepting and using the “facts” of your life, even seemingly impossibly busy schedules, to derive your best working hours.
- How to Prioritize the Conflicting Demands of Your Writing Career
- You can’t do it all. But the good news is, you don’t have to!
- When to Take Time Off Your Project
- and work on something else that has your attention.
- Why the Writing Community Emphasizes Perfection
- And why you should ignore them.
- How to Sound “Writery”
- And why that is a bad thing.
- Stop Trying to Make the Perfect Pitch
- …and start pitching!
- How to Respond to “What’s Your Book About?”
- How to determine what the asker is really after.
- In Defense of Speculative Fiction
- Research is good, sure, but a fiction writer is not a journalist. It’s your story, your world. You tell us what is true.
- Setting Your Standards Ridiculously Low
- Writing for the trash bin. Ludicrously short work sessions. Putting away the productivity whip and embracing laziness.
- Recording Your Brain’s Ramblings Without Editing
- Shut up, quit being a “writer” and listen to your brain for once.
I said in my first post that you were going to help direct the course of things here. So, direct away. Do any of these post ideas light a fire under you? Is there any you’d particularly like to discuss? Any you think might help you out of a writing jam you’re currently in? Are you a fledgling writer, trying to make a start on something, but have been told (or have bought into the belief) that you can’t? Did you take my challenge and go a whole day without communicating a single thing in writing and want to brag about it? Do you disagree with me that anyone can write? Is writing a special holy order, reserved for the sacred few? Lemme hear your arguments. Hey, I could be wrong, but I know one thing: you’ll have to write something to convince me. 😉