Stop Trying to be a Writer

In this post, some lessons from my writing life for aspiring writers, especially fiction writers and poets.

Sisyphus by Beth Scupham via Flickr

For many years, I wanted to be a writer. For many years, I tried to be a writer. For many years, I waited for someone else to confirm for me that I was in fact a writer because I did not feel like a writer. I lost a lot of sleep and shed more than a few tears in those years of trying to be a writer.

The funny thing about trying to be a writer is how easily it turns into something other than actually writing.

An aspiring writer pens one short story, tinkers with it, spends hours and hours researching literary magazines and submitting to them, waits weeks or months to find out if the story has been accepted or rejected (possibly, probably writing nothing new while waiting), gets a rejection (almost inevitable), tinkers some more, begins again with the researching of literary magazines, waits some more, and so in a matter of several years completes only a handful of short stories while telling friends (or telling only oneself), “I’m trying to be a writer.”

An aspiring novelist has not yet completed one full draft of a manuscript but stays up late at night researching agents. An aspiring poet applies to dozens of residencies, writing personal statements and explanations of her project and how she’ll use her residency time if only someday she is accepted into one of those programs and therefore is given the time to write poetry. Writers of all styles and genres spend countless hours applying to MFA programs so they can get a degree that certifies them as Official Writers.

Don’t mistake me: Publishing in literary magazines can be a satisfying experience. Residencies can be a wonderful gift. MFA programs can provide meaningful guidance and support. But when pursuing those things gets in the way of the process of actually writing stories, poems, and novels, one is only trying to be a writer. Fortunately there’s a simple solution:

Stop trying to be a writer. Instead, always be writing.

Submit that short story and then, without waiting for any reply, get started on writing the next one. Forget about finding an agent until you have not only completed a manuscript, but you have also completely revised that manuscript through two or three drafts. Apply to residencies, but don’t wait until you’re granted magical time away from daily life to sit down and write.

In my years as an aspiring writer, I always felt like I was trying so darn hard and I didn’t understand why the world wouldn’t just call me a writer already, but in retrospect I see how little of my effort was actually on writing. One story does not a writer make. Two poems do not a writer make. A few chapters of something that may or may not one day be a novel do not a writer make.

The turning point for me in my writing life came when I realized that I wasn’t actually putting into my writing as much effort as I could. I didn’t have a daily writing practice and I often didn’t commit to finishing pieces I started. I had been working on a novel in fits and starts for years, but I never seemed to get anywhere.

You know the old saying “dress the part”? There’s a lesson for us all in that.

If I wanted to be a writer, I realized I should start acting like a writer. What do writers do? They write.

The more I wrote the more I wanted to write. The more I wanted to write the easier it was to find pockets of time in my day to write, the easier it was to let go of things that were distracting me from writing. I finished one project and then another. I began to feel uneasy on days when I didn’t write. I no longer needed someone else to give me a seal of approval because every day I was doing the thing I most wanted to do.

When I think about what it is to always be writing, as opposed to being recognized as a writer, I recall the scene in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in which Billy Pilgrim recognizes his favorite author, Kilgore Trout, in an alley in Illium. Trout, who is making a living selling newspapers, has just finished arguing with one of his newspaper delivery boys. In a moment of pure humiliation, he has lost the argument with the young boy and Trout will now have to deliver the newspapers himself, and he doesn’t even have a car. Then Billy Pilgrim approaches him:

“Are — are you Kilgore Trout?”
“Yes.” Trout supposed that Billy had some complaint about the way his newspapers were being delivered. He did not think of himself as a writer for the simple reason that the world had never allowed him to think of himself that way.
“The — the writer?” said Billy.
“The what?”
Billy was certain that he had made a mistake. “There’s a writer named Kilgore Trout.”
“There is?” Trout looked foolish and dazed.
“You never heard of him?”
Trout shook his head. “Nobody — nobody ever did.”

What writer doesn’t feel the heartbreak of Kilgore Trout? In the novel, Billy is a World War II veteran who suffered a nervous collapse after the war. He first read Trout’s work while in a mental hospital. Trout’s novels are an essential coping mechanism for him and have a huge impact on his life.

Trout didn’t think of himself as a writer, but, in the fictional world of Vonnegut’s work (he appears in several of Vonnegut’s novels), he managed to write a lot of books. The thing that matters is not to Be A Writer. It is to Always Be Writing.

Like Trout, so many writers toil in obscurity. The world does recognize them as a writers. But they write, they write, they write because they can’t not write. They put their work into the world and they seldom know how it affects readers. Maybe, one day, if they are lucky, they bump into a reader in an alley in Illium and finally are recognized.

Let’s consider in more depth the dangers of waiting for the world to call you a writer:

Imagine you finish writing the manuscript that you dream will be your first novel. You’ve toiled for years to finish it. You submit it to agents but get back only silence and rejection.

Are you a writer then?

And imagine that you revise it, and this time, after dozens more rejections, an agent finally accepts it, but the agent can’t get any publishers to pick it up.

Are you a writer then?

Or maybe a publisher takes it on but then your editor leaves before it is published and no other editors at the publishing house want it, so it never goes to print.

Are you a writer then?

Or maybe a publisher selects it, it gets made into a book, but it doesn’t sell enough copies to earn out the very modest advance you were paid, and the publisher isn’t interested in publishing your next book.

Are you a writer then?

To publish one’s work is an exercise in endless rejection and frustration. Aspiring writers, ask around. The hypothetical situations I just described are full of experiences that are far more common than realizing the dream of being able to support oneself by writing.

I’m not trying to bum you out, but the fact is, if you wait for external signs that you are a writer — getting an agent, getting a book deal, seeing your book on bookstore shelves, entering a multi-book deal with a publisher — you might wait forever, and your label “writer” will always be fragile, always in question. If someone else can confer the title “writer” on you, someone else can take that title away.

If you don’t get an agent, or a book deal, or a good enough book deal to see your book in every Barnes and Noble in the country, or an offer on a second book deal due to low sales figures on the first, you are not a failed writer. The only failure in writing is failing to write.

It took me a long time to learn this lesson but I’m glad I did. In the face of all the aspects of a writing life that are unpleasant (and let me tell you, rejection never loses its sting), one thing always feels good: Writing.

Please do not mistake other people’s assessment of your work as proof that you are or are not a writer. Prove to yourself that you are a writer by writing every day. Always be writing.
Sisifus, Max Klinger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes the writing will feel futile. Do it anyway. Writing is a Sisyphean task. Every day I roll a ball of words up the side of a mountain and just when the top is in sight, just as I’m breathing a sigh of relief that I’ve arrived at the end of my journey, I lose my footing and lose my grasp and the whole thing tumbles back down to the bottom and breaks apart into a thousand pieces. And the next day I start again because I am a writer. Except unlike Sisyphus, I have choose this endless toil, and most days I even enjoy it.

Diane Vanaskie Mulligan is the award-winning author of three novels, most recently What She Inherits. You can learn more on her website.