On What It Does (and Does not) Take to Be a Writer
Being a writer is a life-long journey that comes with its own unique challenges and opportunities. There is a large corpus of myths surrounding the life of a writer that many great writers try to debunk but somehow they persist. On the other hand, there are a few key characteristics and lifestyle choices that aid in being writer that aren’t talked about enough. I am all about breaking down the mystification of writing as a vocation and the sacralization of the writer as an individual, so why not start with this handy list?
- You don’t need to be depressed to be a writer. This myth continues to this day. It is true that some really great writers (see: Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath etc) were depressed and eventually committed suicide. This, however, is tragic and unfortunate. It didn’t make their writing any better or worse. I heard once that suffering is a necessary precondition of all great artists and while I understand that heartache and social alienation and culture clash might constitute as ‘suffering’ to some, I also think that these kind of quotes glorify clinical suffering that people actually need to get help for. Sure there are studies that show that depressed people might tend to have different outlooks on life that may or may not help them to be more creative; however, being dead is pretty much the end of all creativity. Get help. And then keep writing.
- Writing does not need to be your only job. There are plenty of writers who worked real day jobs (see: Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, Nathaniel Hawthorne) and even though writing was their real passion in life, they didn’t sacrifice everything for the craft. In fact, some of the best writers will tell you that sitting at home all day, worrying about the bills and procrastinating by binge-watching Netflix is the worst writing inspiration they could possibly imagine. Just ask anyone working on a doctorate dissertation and you know why it is critical to have social contact and some other work besides writing to keep you going. Plus, it offers the possibility of expanding your knowledge base and allows for your financial freedom to focus on your writing.
- You should write AND read every day. Every single published author who is worth listening to will tell you this. You must write something every single day. It doesn’t have to be the big project you’re working on; it doesn’t have to be a complete poem in its entirety. It just shouldn’t be an email response or catching up on Facebook comments. To qualify, you should be writing to hone your craft every day. Set a word limit or a time limit and watch how easy they are to achieve and surpass. A lot of writers work best if their time for writing is the same time every day, particularly if they set a time limit (like starting with 15 minutes per day and working your way up to an hour or two). The other important thing is that you MUST read every single day. It doesn’t have to be much but if you are working in a particular genre and you want to keep things fresh and exciting, you should be reading at least one thing per day. Set a time or a page limit and you are gold. Most authors have several books on the go so this is a no-brainer.
- Read outside your genre. Expand your knowledge base – I cannot emphasize how important this is. It is very easy to spot an author who sticks to stereotypical similes, tropes and metaphors of their genre. The more you know, the more you add to your writing toolkit – information and ideas that you access at a moment’s notice while you are typing or scrawling away.
- Really study your favourite authors’ craft. How many times have you sat down with your favourite book and studied how the author described people? How many times have you highlighted transition passages between chapters? Are there margin notes in your books? If the answers are never, never and no, you will be very limited in what you can accomplish in your writing. De-mystify what makes a good book a good book. Figure out exactly how descriptions of people and places happen. Underline and jot down the key elements of good dialogue and keep these things in mind for your own writing. When you get stuck, it can offer a simple solution to getting unstuck. Emulating the greats brings no shame with it either! The best learn from the best!
- Not all of your writing has to be good. Destroy your Messiah-complex. Not everything you write is going to be the lost gospel. In fact, most of it will be destined for the wastebasket. The pressure to always perform can lead to serious (surprise, surprise) performance anxiety – just like any other vocation. Realize that in every piece of drivel, you might be fortunate enough to find something salvageable and transformable for later. Keep at it. I had a brilliant writing instructor who used to force us to take our favourite sentences and black them out with a sharpie. “Kill your babies!” another writing instructor would shout, at our pouty, ego-bruised faces. Liberate yourself and keep writing.
- Not everything you write has to be the next great novel. Same idea as number 6. You don’t always need to be working on projects that are going to be published to be considered a writer. Write for the sake of writing. Figure out interesting writing exercises you can do (write in vignettes, write on a specific memory, write like it’s a different genre or era) that will help you expand your horizons and (no surprise here) will. Get. You. Writing.
- Writers are constantly learning. If you are not learning, you are not writing. Writing doesn’t just come out of nowhere. You are not a divine hierophany through which the writing muse speaks. You have to be on top of your learning. This doesn’t mean sitting in a library all day either. Learning means reflecting on things – whether this be people-watching, travelling, psychoanalysis, reading a book, learning a new hobby, attending a social group etc.
- Good researchers make good writers. This goes hand-in-hand with number 8. The best writers also do the best research. They are not lazy with their research and will often seek out multiple sources to find the same information. Absolutely nothing is worse than reading a book or short story that is riddled with historical mistakes, the wrong dates or things that are totally implausible. It tears your reader out of the magical reading-space and starts their brain questioning immediately – a writer’s worst nightmare.
- When you fail, try again. A lot of what you do will suck. You will get a lot of rejection letters. Some people will tell you that you aren’t meant to write. Just keep reading, researching and, above all, writing. You will improve. You will find your genre, your audience and your stride. If you stop trying, the only thing you’ve found is defeat.