“I want to be a writer.”
How many times have I heard that before? I’ve said it a few times myself, picturing shelves of my publications and imagining little children and beautiful women flocking to read my latest. (Somehow, in my fantasy, I’ve written a secret-formula crossover that appeals to both fifth graders and supermodels.) Apart from the ridiculous breadth of fandom, the dream doesn’t seem impossible. I really think I can publish. Many of you probably can, too. The trick is in the writing.
The difference between wanting to be a writer and being one is, simply, writing. That’s it. We all have our excuses. We’re too busy. Too tired. Too whatever. But maybe it’s time to tell your excuses they can shove it.
“But I have nothing to write about,” you say. Or, “But I’m not creative enough.” To the first excuse I say, “Are you familiar with any people, places or things? If yes, you have something to write about, so close your cakehole and write.” The second excuse garners a bit more sympathy (more, that is, than a cakehole comment). It may well be you’re not creative enough to write a great story, but to write a story alone requires barely any creativity beyond the ability to sit at a keyboard and punch away.*
Others of you might find your writing thwarted by what those in the business (and everywhere else) like to call writer’s block (not to be confused with Writer’s Bloc, a community of savant Soviets scribbling away somewhere in St. Petersburg). I don’t believe in writer’s block. It’s a myth we use to cover up our earlier excuses. Again, you may not always write well, but you can always write. And bad writing, given enough ink or keystrokes, has a way of turning suddenly to tolerable writing, and before you know it you’ve written a sentence that might be salvageable, might even be good enough to let live, let breathe, let stick around until the next draft.
So, don’t let the excuses creep in. Every dream has its lurking ghosts, every garden has its tempting serpents, but it’s up to you to put pen to paper and write them away.
Evicting the excuses may be a chore at first, but I think writing is like running; it’s a healthy, freeing thing that eventually becomes a habit, becomes something you rather like doing, becomes something you can’t imagine going without.
But not so fast. What about my excuses?
I’ll tell you what my problem is… I’ve always wanted to start a sentence like that… my problem is overthinking, is envy, is distraction by all the things that could ever be.
What do I mean?
I mean I spend too much time considering what I could be writing and how I should be writing it. I’m forever surfing to sites that lend writing advice (Vonnegut’s tips are tops). Sites that tell me how long a “typical” novel should be, as though that’s what I’m aiming for. Sites that report at what age bestselling authors were first published, as though I need reassurance that I’m not past the age of literary procreation. And questions arise: Should I try genre fiction or go literary? Is a first-person child narrator as likely to be published as a third-person know-it-all? Will I have a better shot fielding short stories, or should I jump straight into the novel?** All of these questions catch me right in the trachea and squeeze. So, here’s an idea, maybe I should stop comparing myself to Roth, stop trying to write Lord of the Flies, stop wondering what if and just freaking write.
That would be something. A writer who wrote instead of slinking along in half-measures, dwelling on mirages.
Now, you might be saying, and with good reason, “Griffin, you punk, who are you to talk about being a writer. You have no credibility.” That’s fair. Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith or pretty much any author you’ve ever heard of (simply by virtue of your having heard of them) is better qualified. But, remember, the reason they’re qualified is the fact that they didn’t waste time, didn’t show off, didn’t trick themselves with wanting to be writers. They wrote.
Which brings me to a pretty plain axiom, but one I think is terribly true: We do what we want.
If you really want to write, you’ll write. But if you find time and again you’re not writing, that you’re throwing excuses against the wall in an effort to convince yourself tomorrow, for sure, then maybe you don’t truly want to be a writer after all. You’d rather do all the things you’re doing instead.
From the top floors of New York publishing houses we may not look like writers. No bestsellers here. No movie rights sold. No teenage or supermodel fans clamoring. Not even a hometown booksigning… yet. But, hey, I wrote this today, and now you’re reading it, which is more than the wannabes can say.
So, if you want to be a writer, go write.
*If you’ve never seen Finding Forrester, do yourself a favor and watch it four or five times. Sean Connery tells his padawan to “Punch the keys!” which leads to the unforgettable, “You’re the man now, dog.”
**The highlights, so you don’t waste your time searching: average literary fiction works are 80,000 to 100,000 words, though Of Mice and Men is 30,000 and War and Peace is 590,000 (according to Amazon). Average age at publication of first professional novel: 36.2 years (according to Jim C. Hine’s First Novel Survey, skewed toward fantasy/sci-fi fiction). And, on average, authors sold 7.7 short stories before selling their first novel, though the median is only 1 short story. Almost half of the 246 authors in Hine’s survey sold their first novel without any previous short story sales.
After a few years spent correcting grammatical errors and writing subtle, clever headlines in a Chicago newsroom, Griffin Paul Jackson (’11) now does aid work with refugees in Lebanon. He writes about that, God, and, when the muse descends, Icelandic sheep. Read him here: griffinpauljackson.com.