Writing Starts with Letting Go of Your Writerly Desires
I started my blog a couple of years ago. And ever since then, the overachiever in me has been dreaming of climbing the freelance writer ladder. In my head, it looked something like this:
- Publish an article a day on Medium for a month.
- Get accepted as a writer on Medium owned publications to multiply my income.
- Publish politically and racially charged op-eds on Bitch, HuffPost, Splice Today, The Guardian, Slate… etc.
- Get noticed by an editor of The New York Times and become a regular columnist.
To give you a little background, I’m an electrical engineer. My writing experience up until a couple of years ago has been limited to writing research, project, and test reports related to electrical circuits. So, when I decided to start a blog, it was already a massive undertaking for me. I knew nothing about writing for readers who were not my professors. Mix in the fact that English is not even my native language, well, you can understand the problem with my lofty writing goals.
The realist in me knew that my dream was a tad too big given the circumstances. The optimist in me knew dreams are powerful, and if I put in the work, I may not reach The New York Times, but it was definitely possible to reach something big still. The pessimist in me who’s just not pessimist enough thought, well, there’s nothing wrong in doing what I want to do and see how far I can go.
But writing isn’t like engineering, or so I thought. In high school and college, I could sit down and glue my eyes to the problem at hand until my brain figured out what the problem was or how to go about solving it. Writing couldn’t be the same, could it?! You needed to be born a writer to be a writer — thought stupid me.
Let’s say that I was trying to squeeze out creativity by way of tapping into some inherent talent well I didn’t know I had in me.
I have no inherent talent for writing. So, of course, there’s no way of tapping into some nonexistent well. Some two years ago, when I started my blog, I shared what I was learning about blogging. Eventually, I started teaching what I was learning. It was easy. It was similar to writing engineering project reports. But the other pieces — the politically charged opinion pieces or the personal essays — weren’t so simple after all. No matter how long I stared at a blank screen, my brain didn’t automatically turn out potentially viral content or content that would strike curiosity if an NYT editor accidentally stumbled upon it.
As I figured out eventually, my problem was that I was trying to write for big publications and not for the sheer joy of writing. It was such a basic thing too. Even as an engineer, I knew that the most important thing was enjoying the work. If you do not find a way to have fun with your work, the work burns you out. I’m not sure why I thought writing would be any different. Turned out, all I had to do was enjoy the process. My efforts were all in writing viral content, which had resulted in writing absolute crap. And so when I let that go, suddenly, writing became easier.
This past November, I sat down to write my thoughts. Brain to the screen. It wasn’t supposed to be a grand article. It wasn’t supposed to be published at all. I was reading a book and was learning things I didn’t know before. I was only writing to make sense of the information I was consuming. But soon, my thoughts started to take form, and that form produced a short article — just shy of 500 words.
I did a few things that day that I had never done before. I wrote my first 500-ish-words without struggling, I submitted it to a publication not owned by Medium or me, and within the hour, I heard back from the editor who published my short piece the very next day. What’s more, I got paid for it too! Crazy, right?
No, it wasn’t the Times, or the Guardian, or Slate, or Bitch. It was a smaller publication few people are aware of. But it’s one I have enjoyed reading in the past. It’s one where some of my favorite contemporary non-fiction writers publish regularly, and to see my name on that list was humbling. And it all happened as soon as I stopped worrying about which big publication to publish on, or how much money I was making per word, or where this article could potentially take me as a writer.
Turns out, all I had to do was forget and forego everything else and just write!