Like any good story, the writing life is a tale of deceptive depth. At first glance, it offers up a shiny, artsy, fun cover.
Become a Writer! its title beckons, and its first chapters lure us in by fulfilling all these initial promises. But the deeper we get, the further we go, the more we realize there’s more to this story than meets the eye. There’s more adventure, more conflict, more drama, and more comedy than we could ever have realized. In short, there are
many different misconceptions about being a writer.
At the beginning of the year, I started re-reading my old journals, starting from when I was fourteen (because at some point I got embarrassed and burnt everything prior to that). It’s been fascinating to revisit my young self for many reasons, but one of the most interesting is remembering what it was like to be that young writer just starting out—the one who didn’t even know they made books that taught you how to write. I’d all but forgotten what it was like at the beginning of the journey—to be on the very first page of my own personalized version of Become a Writer!
Certainly for me so far, the adventure has been full of surprises, and since I’m now twenty years into this journey and long since complacent with many of the challenges that initially seemed insurmountable, it’s both startling and delightful to realize the story of being a writer is far from formulaic.
7 Misconceptions About Being a Writer
Today, I thought it might be fun to take a look at seven of the misconceptions about being a writer that I used to believe (some of them for many, many years). Some of them were useful in their time and place, if only because they narrowed my options in the beginning and kept me from being overwhelmed by too many options. But each was also a joy to conquer on the way to seeing a much bigger vista on the other side.
1. Writing Doesn’t Count Until You’re a “Real” Writer
This has got to be the most prevalent of all misconceptions about being a writer. (And, in all fairness, the title of this site certainly hasn’t done anything to help!) It begins with the reality that we start as beginners with a long road before us if we are ever to be published, prolific, or even simply professional. But the idea that our writing doesn’t count until we are published, prolific, and professional is simply untrue.
People often ask me what qualifies them as a “real” writer. Publication is the clearest metric. But as my young self learned, that’s not always so clear either. I started out right on the cusp of the indie boom, back when no one had anything good to say about self-publishing (and not without good reason). So I walked a long and winding road on the way to figuring out what qualified me as a “real” writer. Was it my first self-published novel? Was it when I gained a certain number of sales/followers/hits/rankings? I’m honestly not sure where I crossed the line and decided I was a “real” writer. Looking back, I rather think there was no line. There was just the passage of time and the gaining of experience.
I have always disliked the phrase “aspiring writer” or, worse, “wannabe writer.” Rather, “pre-published writer” is one of my favorite ways to talk about the launchpad phase. If you write, you are a writer. And if you are a writer, then you are already a “real” writer. Don’t discount what you write in the early days (and please don’t burn it like I did). You’re no less a “real” writer in the beginning than you were a “real” person in childhood.
2. There’s a Magic Daily Word Count That Proves You’re Disciplined
It’s kind of funny, actually. The writing life is deeply non-normative. It’s different for each of us. And yet writers suffer from comparativitis. Largely, I think this is because the sheer vastness of the creative life puts us all at sea and we look to our fellows to help us understand what might be “normal” and what might not.
Certainly, there is value in this. Long ago, I remember reading Elizabeth George’s Write Away and finding great comfort in her approach to planning a story—because it grounded my own instinctive approach. But I’m quite sure other young writers read the same book and found it horrifying because it didn’t fit their own instinctive approaches at all.
So it goes with daily word count, among many other things. We’re always sneaking looks over our peers’ shoulders, wondering just how many words they write every day. Do our own habits measure up? Or are we about to discover how woefully undisciplined we really are?
But there’s no secret sauce. There’s no magic daily word count. J. Guenther commented insightfully on last week’s post:
Some writers write in great swathes of eight or more hours a day, pounding out tens of thousands of words in a sitting. Others poke out bare sentences at a time. Most of us fall somewhere in between. The proof of our discipline as writers is found far less in how fast the words flow from us and much more in the fact that we keep showing up and inviting them to flow.
3. The Rest of Your Life Must Never Take a Backseat to Your Writing
This is one I believed for a long time. My mantras were “treat writing like a job” and “if you don’t take your writing time seriously, no one else will either.”
They were good mantras as far as they went. Certainly, they helped me hone daily discipline. But if we believe these ideas too stringently, we risk either never looking up from our desks or feeling constantly guilty because other parts of our lives do in fact push their way to the front of the line.
During this time of global unease, I have heard from writer after writer struggling with compounded stress because they simply can’t find it in themselves to write like normal right now. But if this pandemic and its myriad tentacles is teaching us nothing else, I think it’s safe to say it’s proving that life follows its own cycles. Some days/weeks/months/years are for writing; some are not.
One of the most joyous lessons I have learned so far as a writer is that the non-writing days/weeks/months/years do not mean I’m any less of a writer. They just mean it’s time to learn something new, to explore, to refill the tank. Indeed, I’d have to say writing only truly works when the “rest of your life” is in the front seat.
4. The Writing Life Follows a Set Roadmap
Maybe it’s just because I’m so linear-minded, but I entered the writing life with this conception that it was a neatly mapped and well-traveled road. As writers advance down this road, they pass a steady progression of milestones—rather like successive grades in school.
Again, to a certain degree this is true. If nothing else, you start out as a beginner, move on to the intermediate phase, and perhaps someday become “advanced.” But beyond that progression, which is affected by little more than time, the writing ride is wild and uncharted.
My journey so far looks nothing like how I thought it would. I also daresay my journey looks like nothing yours, and yours looks nothing like anyone else’s. We come to writing at all ages. We write for all kinds of different reasons. Our journeys to publication (or not) follow many different paths. And even the ebb and flow of our creative interests and motivations are ever-shifting.
If there’s one thing I would say about the writing life at this point, it’s that it’s full of plot twists.
5. Writers Are Wiser Than Everyone Else
In a vague sort of way, I used to think of writers as some kind of transcendent version of humanity. How wise they must be. How different from common mortals. I mean, they have their names on book covers in the grocery store for heaven’s sake.
Certainly those writers whose names are noticed, much less recognized, did have the talent and smarts to get their names on those covers. But at some point, when you realize you are an author, you also realize you haven’t somehow become bigger in order to fit the role. Rather, your idea of “author” becomes quite a bit smaller. You realize that, if anything, being an author is a challenge to learn more—because you don’t know anywhere near enough.
6. Either Writing Is Glamorous or Writing Is for Lazy Bums
Nothing stops dinner conversation faster than telling people you’re a writer. No one ever seems to know quite what to make of it (very possibly because they’ve never before gotten that answer to the “so what do you do?” question). Should the conversation happen to progress past polite grunting, you’re likely to get one of two responses. Either people geek out and think you must be rich and famous with multiple movie adaptations under your belt, or they inconspicuously break eye contact in the suspicion that you’re just covering for the fact that you’re too lazy to have a “real job.”
For most of us, writing is neither glamorous nor a breeze. Very few of us live in a mansion or walk the red carpet. It’s true we often do spend long hours lying around in the hammock or on the couch—but usually in some sort of agonized struggle to break through our story woes.
On the whole, writers are incredibly disciplined people. They’re like body-builders of the imagination—always working, always honing, always subjecting themselves to rigorous self-improvement plans. In fact, writers are some of the least lazy people I know. And we do all this even though we have long since been disillusioned in the notions of glamour. Money, fame, and movie adaptation sound fun, but they’re not why the majority of us do what we do, day in and day out. This quote from Ryan Reudell nails it:
Maybe it won’t be famous. Maybe it won’t be a movie. But that’s not why I started it. And that’s not why I’ll finish.
7. Writing Is Very Serious Stuff
After my first novel came out, I went to the post office to mail review copies. I told the postal worker it was my first book, and he drawled, “What is it—a cheap romance?” Mortified, I rattled off something about how “no, it was a historical novel about duty and justice.”
It took me a long time after that to admit that what I write is genre pulpiness full of swash and, yes, a good dose of romance. But it wasn’t just the deprecating sexism of the postal worker’s comment that made me reluctant to name what I write as “fun” stories. It was also the belief that writing, if it’s to be any good, should be very serious stuff.
Certainly, writing is serious. It shapes our world. Even if no one reads it but ourselves, it still shapes our lives. But writing our stories is a great responsibility, it is no greater a responsibility than is every other word we put into the world. And a lot of those words are just good fun. Indeed, I adamantly believe some of the most powerful stories (for both good and evil) are those that are most entertaining.
These days, if someone asks me about one of my books, I usually jump to the most fun part first.
Truthfully, I begin to realize misconceptions about being a writer are never-ending. But I’m also realizing that the more lightly we camp on certain ideas as “gospel,” the more easily we’re able to discard them when they’re no longer of use to us. Twenty years from now, I look forward to reading my current journal—and smiling back at the things I used to believe but have long since outgrown.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are some misconceptions about being a writer that you used to hold but have grown past? Tell me in the comments!
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