One of the hardest things about writing — beyond choosing to write The Novel and actually sitting down to do it — is owning up to your title, The Novelist.
Getting my degree in English and writing was the first step. Or, if we want to be less prosaic about it, writing novelettes about horses and fairy tales about dragons on Word 97 in my preteens.
However, as others in the writing community understand, there is often a mental roadblock we run into when asked what we do for a living, or even what we’d like to do in the future. This roadblock is influenced by stigma, self-doubt, and fear of judgment.
Yesterday, I was watching an old episode of The Office (and when I mean old, I mean the original BBC version), and something said by Dawn, the secretary, reminded me how our career choices define us:
I always wanted to be a children’s illustrator and when people said, ‘What do you do?’ I would say, ‘Well, I’m an illustrator, but I do some reception work for a little bit of extra cash.’ So, for years, I was an illustrator who did some reception work. Then Lee thought it would be a good idea for us both to get full-time jobs and then you’re knackered after work and it’s hard to do illustrating. So now, when people ask me what I do, I say I’m a receptionist.
It is hard to work full-time and also be a writer (I would venture to say practically impossible). Because writing is full-time work. I’m not talking about the kind that’s just “for fun,” a hobby, or a pipe dream, but a serious creative endeavor. This is a leap of faith. Putting yourself in that mindset is a start.
But then, you need to declare yourself a writer. When people ask what I do, I say, “I’m a writer. I’m an editor.” I don’t wish and wash, see and saw, hem and haw.
If you’re a writer, it’s what you do. Own it.
You will often think you are being irresponsible, spending too much time in your own imagination, taking a risk that won’t pay off, etc. You will have these rumblings of doubt. Do you hear that doubt monster? That is your quarry, and you must capture it before it captures you. Don’t just stalk and skirt from a distance. Pounce on it. Sink your teeth into it. Dig in with your claws. Really kill it dead. And then you might find that the big ugly monster of doubt was just a field mouse after all.
Calling yourself a real artist when you are a fresh-from-college twentysomething is making the continuous, conscious decision to kill that voice of doubt when you hear it sneaking up on you. It’s a battle you fight in the trenches of a minimum wage job, because you get by how you get by, but you refuse to give up your creative vision. It’s always there in your subconscious, waiting to emerge.
You may also ask yourself if you know enough about the publishing industry, namely marketing and querying, to call yourself a writer. You may ask, when do I kiss ass and when do I declare fisticuffs? Everything I have soaked up about the industry — every article, book, lecture — loves to parry its advice with the stipulation: “But be prepared, because it’s really hard to get published.” But don’t let that become an excuse. Life is hard. Do your research, make something you can be proud of, and don’t give up.
You will be met with rejection, but you’ll find an unexpected amount of support from loved ones and friends who realize how much this means to you. Invite them on your journey, and pack your bags with the tools to guide you. Carry with you a dedication to your craft, a unique arsenal of wordplay. This is your most precious gift.
You don’t get anywhere from being stagnant, you don’t find yourself without getting a little lost first, and you certainly don’t bend to naysayers — or society’s rules — by giving up what you need in your life to function and create and be, simply because it isn’t valued enough.
Because if you’re a writer, words are the breath that flow through you. They keep you alive, and they make you who you are.
Susan Cain said,
in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.
I couldn’t agree more.
But that is a post for another time.