Breaking the “real writer” myth
People sometimes ask me if I’ve always wanted to be a writer.
I say yes. The short answer is yes. And the long answer is, well, yes.
But first, I was going to be a person who worked for the government.
I grew up in a government town, so this seemed like the natural thing to do. My plan was to get hired doing anything in the government through my university co-op job, so that I could also be a writer.
My plan failed, though, because I didn’t get a co-op job. I bombed all of my interviews.
Then I decided to be a professor, so that I could also be a writer.
It was the second year of my undergrad. I was clueless and realjobless, borrowing money to get told to read poems you can find for free at the library.
Then one day, like a candle in the window, like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, like a beacon of hope, like a… you get the idea… a professor of mine told me (well, he told my class, but I might have been the only one gazing up at him, rapt) that grad school was a good idea. He said he was going to retire soon, and so were a lot of other tenured profs. He said they were all going to need to be replaced.
And they all probably were replaced… by two or three part-time lecturers.
After I finished grad school, I went through a period of time when I tried to figure out what else I was going to do.
Obviously I couldn’t just be a writer.
Writers are in coffee shops with their laptops, and they don’t mind the noise around them. They can sit for hours without needing to pee, and when they do need to pee they just leave their laptops, and notes, and coats, and fourth coffees on the table because everyone can see it’s all theirs, and nobody will touch it.
Writers are in cabins with a view of a lake, and a board held up by two boxes for a desk, and a legal pad, and a handful of pens, and a can opener. Their partners think it’s a good idea for them to go up there. Their partners tell them they’re only a phone call away, and while they never expect to get a call, they wait with their phones in their hands at every moment. Or writers don’t bother having partners because they have words, so they don’t need anybody, and they are definitely not nervous about staying in a cabin alone with nothing but a can opener to protect them.
Writers know exactly what to do after a few minutes of pulling on their hair, or groaning, or wringing their hands, to get through the part of their writing that isn’t working. Every single time they try, they make their writing honest, and beautiful, and fresh, and not offensive to anyone except maybe a little bit to a few of their family members.
But writers have family members who will still speak to them even after what their writer said about them, or at least definitely implied about them, in their last book, and it will be okay because the family members love their writer and they’re proud of their writer, and they believe that their writer is doing something valuable.
Writers have already published stories in prestigious magazines, brilliant stories that just kind of popped into their heads and tumbled out onto the page, and they have already sold at least their first novel, and are working, at least, on their second.
Or, on the flip side:
Writers are self-indulgent whiners, babies wandering aimlessly in adult bodies, wasting their lives scribbling veiled retellings of how their heart was broken in a million pieces by their high school boyfriend or, even further in the thick of it, how their Dad left their Mom when they were eleven and their sister was nine, how they never thought they were good enough for anything after that moment, at home on their lunch break, when they were told their Dad was going to go. How their Mom was always pretty hard to live with but often very hard after that, and how nothing at all mattered and there was no point in trying to do anything because people who had more difficult lives ended up doing better things all the time.
Writers are just failures; they never produce or do anything of value, and to top it off maybe one day they’ll receive a pin as a thank-you for forty faithful years of being a cashier.
I couldn’t see any real way of being one of the former types of writer, and I wanted to pull myself out of the quicksand pit that is the latter, so instead of doing much writing of any kind, I kept pursuing the notion that I needed to be a writer and.
And a lawyer. And a librarian. And an archivist. And an interior designer. And a nurse. And an accountant. And a real estate agent. And some sort of manager somewhere. And someone who does something with computers. And someone who does something that has a title that doesn’t embarrass me when I sometimes have to say it out loud. And — okay, even if it isn’t a title that doesn’t embarrass me, just something that I at least kind of enjoy doing because so what if I don’t make a ton of money, and to hell with what everyone else thinks, I just don’t want to be a cashier ever again because what I really am is a writer, and the most important thing in my life is my real writer work.
I really had no idea what to do.
So I had a baby.
This worked really well as a stalling tactic, but years pass; babies grow. The less they need you, the more you are yourself, which can be both good and bad.
Now that a bunch of years have gone by, I am sometimes myself and sometimes comfortable as such, and I feel competent enough to definitively say two things:
First, when people compare books to babies, as in, Writing a book is like giving birth to a baby, they are wrong.
Second, it’s time to set the myriad popular myths of how to be a real writer aside. It’s time to start writing. If all you can manage is a sentence a day, do a sentence a day.
I would bet just about anything that, on most days, if you wrote one sentence, you’d end up writing another. For me, at least, it’s as achingly slow and sometimes as moderately paced as that.
It isn’t a contest, but many of us think of it as one. We think about how far behind we are, how undisciplined we’ve been, how untalented we fear we might be, how many times in our lives the clock has ticked. But thinking this way hurts our souls because it stops us from actually writing. Thinking this way hurts the world, because the world needs good writing in it.
The world needs stories that are as good as we can make them. Honest stories, beautiful stories, fresh ones, and ones that are maybe just a little bit offensive.
There are people out there who know how to read but don’t even bother to do it. Think of how sad they must be, how starved. Think of the best stories you’ve ever read, everything those people are missing.
Maybe a really good story could bring them back. Maybe, if we start, and start again, and keep going, just maybe, one of ours could do it.
If that sounds too idealistic, don’t worry. There are still people who love to read good stories, who know that magic a film can never hold, and hunt for it. So give us your best. And then next time, give us better.