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Last week, on a plane home from the Writer Unboxed writers’ conference, I sat next to a woman who spent much of our flight on her computer studying and practicing kanji, a Chinese script used in the Japanese language.
At one point we struck up a conversation, and I asked her why she was learning it, wondering if it was for school or a job.
“No,” she said. “I just want to.”
I told her how impressed I was by her tackling what to me had always seemed an intimidatingly difficult language to learn, even though I love learning languages, and she shared some of her enthusiasm and enjoyment in studying it.
What neither of us did was dismiss it because she wasn’t yet fluent or an expert. We did not denigrate her interest in it or pursuit of it because she was not a professional translator. It didn’t undermine her joy or my awe.
She simply enjoyed and shared with me her self-motivated, genuine interest in learning a complicated language—and I just thought it was incredibly cool and inspiring that she was working with such dedication on a hard thing that was clearly of great interest and meaning to her.
What Does Being a Real Writer Mean?
Wouldn’t it be nice if this were how conversations with others about our writing went?
And yet at the writers’ conference where I’d just been presenting, many authors joked about family and friends and acquaintances asking when they would finally get that book out, or were they making any money from their writing, or saying things like, “Oh, are you still working on that book?”
I hear authors tell stories like this a lot. Or of being asked, when they tell people they meet that they are writers, how many books they have published, or whether their inquisitor would know them or have seen their books anywhere, and the disinterest or dismissiveness—or sometimes even denigration—they’ve received when the answers don’t match someone’s narrow view of what “being a writer” means.
I wish this were an unusual occurrence, but it’s not.
And bad enough that writers may receive this reaction from strangers—but how much worse when it comes from people they know, or those they love and who love them? That’s an especially painful sort of diminution, one it’s easy to internalize.
Worst of all when those dismissive reactions come from ourselves.
I hear a lot of authors downplay or dismiss their own work because it doesn’t yet meet some standard of legitimacy they’ve accepted: being published, being traditionally published, being a bestseller, making money, or whatever goalpost of validity they’ve assigned it.
I hear them talk about their disappointment in themselves. I hear them lose faith in their abilities.
Sometimes I hear them talk about giving up.
Art Is Not Commerce
I would venture to opine that when most of us were initially drawn to wanting to write, it wasn’t because we were driven by the need to sell our work or see it published and on New York Times bestseller lists.
If we dig back to that initial spark that led us to put our thoughts and words and ideas and emotions and beliefs and perspectives on the page, I’m going to hazard a guess that it had more to do with a fervid love of language or story. Or that we wanted to give life to the vivid tales we wove in our heads. Or that we wanted to share with other people something we felt was important or elemental or fascinating—to connect with them.
Along the line we may have developed professional goals around our creative work, but that passion, that foundational spark, usually doesn’t have much to do with some arbitrary external goalpost. Our writing comes from the truest place inside of us, and when we first start it’s often for its own intrinsic sake, the joy and fulfillment it gives us, the interest we take in doing it. Kind of like my seatmate on the plane learning kanji.
And yet for some reason not only do others seem to dismiss the validity of pursuing this particular passion or interest if it hasn’t crossed whatever Rubicon of professionalism they deem legitimizes it, but if we hear it often enough, I think we start to regard our own creative efforts that same way too.
I meet writers who will not claim the title of author because they’re not yet published—even though they are the author of every word that they’ve ever put on a page and every story they’ve ever imagined.
I meet writers who will immediately downplay their own progress and skill and achievement because they’re new, or “only” write a particular genre, or haven’t published, or haven’t published enough, or with the right people, or for enough money.
Read more: “Dear Author”
What Is the Barometer of Writing Success?
The nerve I think comments like this hit on—and the part that may feel valid to an author—is the professional aspect of it. Even if we stay in touch with that original spark that made us want to write in the first place, many of us want to be professional writers—to be paid for it. To make a career of it.
That’s an entirely valid goal. And to me it indicates something foundationally healthy and clear-eyed in our thinking: Our creative work has value, and we deserve to be paid for it.
It also indicates something wonderfully inherent in art: that its impact and power lies not solely in the creating of it, but the sharing of it.
But it’s as if we don’t believe we are “real writers” yet until we grab whatever external brass ring we or someone else has decided means that we are: publishing, a paycheck, hitting some bestseller list. Until then we’re wannabes. Amateurs.
Read more: “When Will You Be a Success?”
Amateur has become a dirty word, implying an unskilled hack rather than a pro. But the root of the word is literally love—amare. An amateur is one who loves, or per Merriam-Webster, “one who is devoted to something.”
I have met very few writers in my thirty-plus years in this business—at every level of their writing careers—who don’t meet that description. We’re all amateurs, friends.
But even if you accept the connotation of that word as someone who isn’t a professional at their pursuit, a hobbyist or aficionado…so what? Every artist you’ve ever admired started out that way. It’s part of the journey—one that may take varying amounts of time and cover various terrains. Would you stomp out a seedling because it’s not yet in bloom? Would you mock or dismiss someone’s efforts to learn and improve at anything because they don’t yet meet some standard of perfection or professionalism?
Accepting that standard bridles the soul—the root of any meaningful pursuit: the sheer love of it. The enjoyment of doing a thing for its own sake, like gardening, or cooking, or playing the piano, or painting, or rock climbing…or learning kanji.
Read more: “What Is Your Wendy?”
Publishing is a subjective business, as is any industry based on creativity. Success is based on countless variables, mostly outside the creator’s control: trends, gatekeeper tastes, consumer tastes, the market, the economy, catastrophic events outside anyone’s control, like political unrest or a global pandemic or a paper shortage or a ship losing all the distribution copies of your new release overboard in rough seas—countless variables beyond anyone’s ability to predict or manage, least of all the artist.
All you can do is control the parts you can: Write—do the work. Create stories that mean something to you. Work at your craft and get more and more adept at it. Define your goals and figure out what concrete steps are required to achieve them—and then do those things to the best of your ability.
Read more: “What If No One Knows Your Greatness?”
Ultimately what does it matter in your artistic life whether you hit some arbitrary goalpost that denotes “success” to the outside world? How does it affect the doing of the thing itself? Your work’s intrinsic value? What it will have meant to you to have done it, at the end of your life when you’re looking back on how you spent it?
Enjoy every step of the journey—and don’t let anyone who crosses your path make you believe you’re not in the right place yet. We are where we are, all of us, and every step is legitimate.
“You must cultivate activities that you love. You must discover work that you do, not for its utility, but for itself, whether it succeeds or not, whether you are praised for it or not, whether you are loved and rewarded for it or not, whether people know about it and are grateful to you for it or not. How many activities can you count in your life that you engage in simply because they delight you and grip your soul? Find them out, cultivate them, for they are your passport to freedom and to love.”
No one gets to define your freedom and what you love except you. Grab that passport and cultivate your delight, authors. Let your writing grip your soul.
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