Becoming a Writer: So You Want to Be a Writer?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this series, one of the comments I hear most often when people find out I’m a published author is: “Oh, I’ve always wanted to write.” Or something similar: “I have a story I’ve been thinking about writing for a long time. How do I get started?”
In my mind, what separates true “writers” from those who “want to write” is the compulsion to actually put words on the page. This goes for every type of writing there is: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, essay, memoir, etc. If you truly are going to be a writer, there must be somewhere within you the drive, the desire, to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, and actually write. The need to share whatever story, information, image, or experience that’s burning a hole in the pocket of your mind must be so consuming that you can’t help but write about it, whether it’s blogging about it, writing about it in a journal, writing snippets of scenes/dialogue on fast-food napkins, or stealing moments during the Sunday sermon to write a stanza on the back of the bulletin. Because if you don’t have that burning desire to see your ideas put into black-and-white, hard-edged text, you’ll never succeed as a writer.
Second, but of almost equal importance to the compulsion to put words on paper, is your ability to live life to its fullest, to seek out “new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.” No, this doesn’t mean you have to be a thrill-seeker, nor a world traveler, nor even someone who is outgoing and adventurous. What it means is that you have to be an observer. You have to immerse yourself in life, to catalog your experiences and those you observe in people around you. In a 1962 article for The Writer (reprinted in the May 2008 edition), best-selling author Sloan Wilson (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) put it this way:
The important thing of course is to learn to live fully, to love with kindness as well as passion, to hate the right things and even the right people effectively rather than self-destructively, to worship well. . . . Writing is, in general, no better than…other kinds of activity; it is only better for certain people, those whose emotions and ideas take the form of words more easily than patterns of color, sound or other methods of expression. For those, the typewriter is a blessing. But it can be used well only if one is constantly aware that it is only a tool for the expression of life or the reporting of life—by itself, the typewriter has nothing to offer but an annoying metallic clatter.
One of my favorite books to pull out and read segments from whenever I’m doubting my calling to write, or am just exhausted by the process, is Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: “If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about.” So the third part of being a writer is not talent but obedience. Eh? What’s that you say? OBEDIENCE??? Yes, obedience. Obedience to the calling of the story inside you longing to be written. Obedience to yourself when you set a writing schedule. Obedience to pick up a pencil and scrap of paper to write down the scene, line, or idea that pops into your mind at the least opportune moment. Obedience to make time to write a priority in your life. Obedience to learning the craft of writing. And obedience to stop if it becomes apparent writing is not the path you are supposed to be following right now.
Something that is of vital importance to both the dabbler and the writer seeking publication is the fourth guidepost on this journey: the ability to let go. This is a two-fold step. The first half, as Obi Wan Kenobi put it in Star Wars, is to “let go of your conscious self and act on instinct.” As you are creating, in the composing process, there can be nothing self-conscious about the act of writing. There can be no fear of embarrassment, no worry of what others will think of it. Stephen King puts it this way in On Writing: “write with the door closed . . . Your stuff starts out being just for you.” Even if you are intent on the pursuit of publication, you cannot be thinking about that when you’re in the creative process. You have to let go of every outside influence but the story. You have to let yourself go and allow yourself to become immersed in your characters, in your setting, in your plot. You have to let go of everything your left-brain is trying to trip you up with (You can’t use passive voice!; Are my critique partners going to ding me on this?; Does this fit with so-and-so house’s guidelines?), and, as already mentioned, be obedient to the story wanting to be told. Let go of the voices (internal or external) telling you that what you write will never be good enough. Let go (and banish forever) the thought that if people knew what you were doing, they’d laugh at you (again, just think about those hoards of people out there who “want to write”). Let go of the notion that you have to write within certain genre guidelines or in the certain manner of a highly touted author or a particular publisher’s expectations. Let go of anything that limits you.
The second half of this comes after you’ve completed the composition process. Let go of the idea that your “baby” is perfect just as it is. Let go of the idea that it’s the most wonderful thing ever written and publishers will be fighting to get their hands on it. Let go of the dream of a smooth, easy road to publication. Let go of your favorite scenes, your favorite pieces of dialogue, your favorite characters. Let go of the belief that everyone who reads it will love it. Again, returning to Stephen King: “rewrite with the door open. . . . Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.” Let go and take criticism—from contest judges, from critique partners, from mentors, from editors. Let go and be willing to change—be willing to learn, be willing to edit, be willing to grow, as a person and as a writer.
If you can do all of this, then you might be ready to be a writer.