In high school biology, my aversion to dissecting frogs changed the trajectory of my career. I went in one semester from wanting to be a veterinarian to wanting to be a writer.
This decision was reinforced when I published my first poem and earned my first dollar, which my mother promptly framed (the dollar, not the poem).
In college, I edited the campus newspaper, graduated with degrees in Journalism and English literature, landed a job as the editor of a small-town weekly, and for a very modest paycheck, wrote the entire newspaper. I had fulfilled my career aspiration, to be a writer.
Only I hadn’t. This wasn’t the kind of writer I wanted to be. I discovered this when I made friends with the police chief and the other officers on the force. They passed along newsworthy tips, called me whenever there was breaking police news, and one night they brought me a gift; a television they had confiscated during a drug bust.
Everything was going along fine until I stumbled across some information about the police chief that involved illegal kickbacks. With journalistic instincts that would have made my former journalism professors proud, I pursued leads like a bloodhound, put together my story, splashed it all over the front page, and my friend the police chief was fired and almost carted off to prison.
Other newspaper publishers around the state called and offered me a job. They congratulated me on my “investigative reporting.” This was all heady stuff, but I realized something. I didn’t have the stomach for journalism.
Was it my fault a man’s career and reputation were ruined? Not really, because he was responsible for his own actions. But as a reporter, it was my job to generate headlines and stories from the controversies and human frailties that swirled around me all the time, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I had been so excited about the story that I had forgotten about the man.
I left journalism for good, determined to be a different kind of writer. That’s when I began the long, disheartening road of a writer who collects rejection letters. Occasionally I sold an article to a small, obscure magazine, but my slush pile of manuscripts grew. I wrote books and stories and poems and articles, and the returned manuscripts landed in a cardboard box in my basement.
My paychecks came from other occupations: flight attendant, business manager, nonprofit director, wife and mother. My writing was squeezed into spare minutes and sporadic hours that did not conflict with my “real” work. I was successful at a lot of things, but I believed my self-worth, my success in life, my life’s purpose, hinged on being a successful writer. I wanted to be a person who could say, “I am a writer,” when people asked what I did.
If you believe your success hinges on whether or not you reach some predetermined goal, then you also start believing you are a failure when you don’t realize that goal. You start to question your self-worth; your talent; your ability to make your mark in the world.
So I kept on trying to “be a writer” until I started noticing that even successful writers weren’t satisfied for long. They suffered from the same self-doubt, depression and dissatisfaction as people who hadn’t achieved anywhere near their level of success. One of my friends got her book published by a “real” publishing company, but she wasn’t satisfied. It wasn’t a best seller.
Roxane Gay recently pointed out in a Salon blog, “What most writers have in common is desire. We want and want and want and want.” Gay gives the example of an author whose first novel was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review and later made it to the best seller list.
That would be any writer’s dream, right? Only the author turned out to be unhappy and frustrated because he hadn’t gotten a Pulitzer nomination!
When I wrote poetry and stories as a teenager, I only wanted to write; to express longings and emotions through words that flowed like music from my heart. Creativity is the overflow of love and joy and sadness and anger and every other emotion that fills us to the breaking point, then splashes onto the canvas of our choice.
For some, that canvas is music. For others, it’s art or writing. I have a friend who fulfills the creative side of her nature through baking and another one who sews.
We’re not all the same, our canvases aren’t always the same, but we’re all made to be creative. It’s a drive that pushes us to transform the raw material of emotion and experience into something meaningful and good. We all have something unique and valuable to offer, whether we realize it or not.
But being creative doesn’t mean our creativity has to define us. It’s only one expression of who we are. It’s interesting that the accomplishments I discounted in so many other arenas were achievements that affected others in a positive way. My children flourished from a good home environment and are now loving, productive adults.
When I retired as a manager, one employee wrote, “You are the best manager I’ve ever had because you truly care about your employees and bring out the best in them.”
My work at a nonprofit helped that organization serve 125 families a day.
Yet I was discounting all this because I hadn’t reached some elusive goal as a writer.
My desire to “be a writer” began to diminish when I realized my success in life didn’t hinge on that or any goal. Successful living involved learning to appreciate my accomplishments, whatever they were. Successful living meant learning to accept the person I was rather than the one I imagined I wanted to be.
Now I only want to write, not to “be a writer.” Once again, my words are an overflow of emotion, a creative expression, a pleasurable and satisfying pursuit. Writing is only one aspect of a journey that includes many things. And the more things I do that take away from my writing time, the more things I have to write about. Experience is the rich soil that gives voice and depth and variety to our writing.
So if you’re a writer trying hard to succeed, don’t let the results of your work determine your self-worth. If you don’t already realize you are valuable and unique with much to contribute, no amount of success will make you feel that way.
Don’t allow wanting to be a writer rob you of your joy in writing.
Don’t resent the things in life that consume your time. Those same things will enrich and enhance your creativity and round you out as a person.
Don’t let your desire for success compromise your values, as I almost did when I was a young newspaper reporter.
You have wonderful things to say, and no one else can say them exactly as you do. As John Mason said, “You were born an original. Don’t die a copy.”
Let your creative side flourish. You have more to offer the world than you can imagine.
Your journey includes writing, but it always includes other activities that fill your days and take up your time. Those are things that enhance your experience, enrich your spirit and provide you with a storehouse of material. They create a fertile ground for your writing to grow and bear fruit.
Don’t be faked into thinking you are a failure. You are not. Enjoy writing and every other aspect of your journey. There are many things to do, to learn, and to explore. They will all make you a better writer.