5 Things I Want to Tell My Younger Writer Self
Speaking through the space-time continuum as an adult professional freelance writer.
When I was a young writer, I romanticized the hell out of writing. I thought being a writer meant living a mysterious, dreamy career that involves sitting in some romantic European villa by the seashore, penning literature that would be beloved by all.
Like many writers, I started making up stories at a young age. Teachers and parents were impressed by my ability to sit and write for hours. They called me “gifted,” but I think that designation hindered more than helped.
In fact, it made me internalize the idea that all you need to become a writer is to want it and to have some vague form of “talent.”
Today, I really want to talk about how we romanticize Writers and Writing, especially as aspiring writers. And I want to reach through the space-time continuum and give my younger writer self some sage advice.
Writing is a job like any other.
Growing up, I didn’t want my dad’s job. My dad wore a suit and tie and worked a typical 9:00 to 5:00 at a major bank. I, being the idealistic soul that I am, wanted a job that would let me wear sweatpants, work at midnight, and sleep until noon.
Now, being a freelance writer allows you to do these things, but it is still very much a job. Being a writer requires discipline, effective time management, and accountability towards other humans who won’t always agree with you. It also requires networking, paperwork, chasing leads, losing leads, and doing your taxes.
Writing isn’t always staring out your beachfront window listening to jazz and waiting for a wave of inspiration to strike. Writing is work, and a lot of it isn’t glamorous.
That all being said, I want to follow up with a bit of optimism.
Becoming a professional writer isn’t difficult, but it is difficult to be the kind of Writer everyone wants to be.
My first job out of university was that of a professional writer: I wrote copy for small business websites at a large marketing agency. It was an entry-level gig that paid modestly and required little prior experience, but it was fun and relatively low-stress.
The truth is, lots of people hate writing and are willing to pay someone else to do it for them. So it is realistic to earn a living writing blog posts, annual reports, product descriptions, online reviews, white papers, and even e-book erotica.
So yes, young Charmaine, you can be a professional writer. But becoming a fiction writer, poet, or screenwriter will be much harder.
Sorry, but your mom’s opinion doesn’t matter.
(To be fair, my mother is an ex-English teacher and has a pretty discerning taste in literature. I’m using “mom” here as a stand-in for adult figures that give lavish praise. And to be honest, my mom probably has I’m-so-proud-of-my-child goggles too.)
Perhaps misguidedly, adults sometimes over-praise young writers. It’s not unreasonable; if your kid does something cool, of course you’ll be super proud of them.
Adults may also comment on a child’s genius because the child is skilled for their age, but a child (like me) may interpret that as being skilled in general.
I’m not a psychologist, but as I got older I began to think that I was probably not gifted in writing. I probably just bloomed early in one academic area because I had the personality characteristics — patience, introversion, preference for quiet indoor activity over hanging out at the mall — conducive to writing.
Now, I do believe it’s important to encourage young writers. I’m forever grateful for my parents for sending me to a gifted writing camp because, well, summer camps are awesome. But I also think it’s important to nurture young minds realistically.
We shouldn’t tell young writers they are talented and leave it at that, we should tell them they have discovered something they are good at and this is the very first step.
You don’t have to “make it” young.
I started writing early in my life, but to be honest with you, those first projects sucked. Sure, I commend myself for having the discipline to write novels as teenager, but they lacked depth, knowledge, and understanding of that elusive Human Condition all writers desire to capture.
There are very few child prodigies in novel writing, very few Billie Eilishes. I think the reason for this is because novel writing is an experimental discipline that benefits from life experience and wisdom.
I would tell young Charmaine to ease off some of that pressure to make it as a prodigious literary darling. It’s not impossible, but it’s also not required to be a good writer.
Instead, just focus on writing really awesome stuff. No matter at what age it gets published, awesome writing is awesome writing. And that’s the whole point of writing, right?
Write short stories.
Young Charmaine wanted to throw herself into the deep end of novel-writing. I imagined producing enormous, door-stopping tomes that could be turned into blockbuster films.
But in truth, my first publications were all short pieces. One of my favourites is called “Smoking with Chu” (Looseleaf Magazine, 2018). It is a very focused, short story about a slacker Chinese-Canadian university student who smokes pot and hates her parents, yet has a strangely powerful connection with her next-door, middle-aged Chinese neighbour.
Sixteen year-old me would have likely found this story boring. Twenty-four year-old me, though, was interested in exploring race, identity, and intergenerational immigrant relationships. And these ideas were what made “Smoking with Chu” a rich, publishable story.
Of course, epic Game of Thrones style novels can be fun and thematically profound, but that thematic profundity cannot be developed overnight. It requires practice, and the smaller, concentrated space of a short story can help writers develop this skill.
Writing is a journey. Writing doesn’t come overnight. Sure, most people nowadays have the literacy to craft a text message, a professional email, or even a lab report, but truly good writing — literature — requires years and years of practice.
I am a published author, but I am not a published novelist. I am still practicing to become a published novelist, but I am also not sitting around waiting for my “big break.” Instead, I write every day. Because it’s part of my job.