You Are a Writer

This is my entry for Positive Writer’s “Your Calling, Your Story” contest.

I’m not the picture of a successful writer. So far, I haven’t had a novel published by a major publisher, let alone become a New York Times bestseller or await a movie/TV adaptation. I don’t yet have an agent, and my social media following is still relatively small. My writing credits are a smattering of articles and poems here and there.

But none of this bothers me. In fact, I’m proud of where I am.

Comparing my journey to those of other writers is fruitless and unproductive, a mere distraction from the real task: writing. Even more importantly, in the last few years, despite more rejections than I can count, I’ve worn more confidently the “writer” label. And I believe you can, too.

Who am I? Why does a counseling graduate student have anything to say about writing? As a child, I loved stories and books. Since I was three, I’ve been basically reading and writing nonstop. But when I was going to college, I couldn’t figure out how to turn my passion for writing into a productive career. I believed, like many other people, that you needed extra-special talent and extra connections to become a full-time writer, and you probably wouldn’t make much money unless you become a household name.

I was debating between a major in English or psychology. I could’ve doubled and done both, but I didn’t want to overload my schedule. So I went with psych, thinking then at least I could help others in a concrete way and not have to deal with blank stares when I said I didn’t want to become an English teacher.

I loved my major (I still love it enough to get a master’s in it), but I still persisted in my writing hobby. By my sophomore spring break, I’d completed the first draft of my first novel. I learned everything I know about writing novels (and revising them, and revising again) from reading blogs and websites about the writing craft. I learned the importance of story structure and external feedback, two elements of the writing life I still swear by today (and I think most other writers do, as well).

All along, I had been hesitant about taking formal writing classes – who can really teach creativity? But when my junior year rolled around, I wanted to formalize my writing education a little so I would force myself to take it more seriously. I picked up a minor in creative writing, and my first class was in something I had never tried: playwriting.

This was really the first time my creative work had been open to critique from my peers and friends, as well as a qualified professor. This was also one of the first times I felt validated as a creator. There were bumps in my story to smooth out, times when I really didn’t know what to do next. But by the end of the semester, I was proud of my finished product, and much more confident in my identity as a writer.

Around this time (well, I might have known it all along, but this was the first time I was able to put it into words, ironically enough), I realized the overlap between writing and psychology. I knew journaling was commonly used in mental health practice. I knew I felt better after writing, and I knew the stories I had written often showed me truths about myself that I hadn’t even intended to face. Now, I’m always seeking ways I can integrate my passions, and I don’t intend to give up on either.

“Writer” doesn’t have to be in your job description for your words to matter. If you have something to say, you’re already halfway there. I didn’t have to wait for any publication credits, milestones, or validation. I became a writer when I became comfortable calling myself one.

Practice Makes Perfect… or Does It?

We hear all the time that the more you do something, the better you’ll become at it. As kids, it’s riding a bike. As teens, it’s driving a car. It can be learning an instrument or knitting or or cooking or drawing or just about any skill.

You’d think writing would work the same way. The more books you write, it should get easier. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to mastery should apply. Or that oft-repeated quote in writing circles about a million words.

But I’d argue the opposite. I’ve seen many writers talk about how writing never gets any easier. I’d say it even gets more difficult the more books you write.

And not because you’re running out of ideas. I have more ideas than I’ll probably be able to execute in my lifetime. The more you learn about the craft of writing–the ingredients of a story’s structure, the major points in a character’s arc, how much backstory is too much or too little, what words to murder to keep a reader’s interest–the more elements you have to balance.

If my use of the second person is irritating, please let me know. The only person I can and mean to speak for is myself.

The more attention you gain as a writer, whether that’s from an army of dedicated readers or an agent and editor pushing you towards your next deadline, the more pressure you have to deliver your next product, and even to top your last (never mind meet all their expectations).

And I think it’s because we believe creative tasks are supposed to get easier with practice that they get so much more difficult.

We believe that, much like memorizing facts for tests in school, once we learn the elements of a scene, we’ll never need to review them (maybe that’s a trait of a recovering perfectionist (who, me?)). We believe that once we’ve skimmed The Emotion Thesaurus, we should be able to recite all of the ways one can express a particular feeling. We feel like we should already know everything there is to know about character arcs because of the sheer amount of hours we spent with five tabs open to K.M. Weiland’s character arc resources at once the last time around.

Why do we feel that way, when it’s so unrealistic? If you’re anything like me, you’re not writing the same story in the same voice.

Each story requires different expressions and combinations of the same ingredients. What worked in my first book might not work for my next, and certainly won’t work for yours.

Writing is so difficult because we can’t easily transfer our practice from one project to the next with guaranteed results. The characters have different needs, the theme is deflating instead of uplifting.

So what can you do if you’re simultaneously stuck on your next project but tired of looking at the same old resources?

  1. Don’t compare your new draft to your finished project. It hasn’t been around long enough to get polished!
  2. Look at new resources to allow your brain the chance to process the same information in a new format.
  3. Don’t give up!

Readers, I hope this helps you remember that you should keep going!

Writing Through a Funk

Once again, thanks to Michelle for the idea!

I’ve gone through several short periods where I don’t feel like doing anything. What I love starts to feel like a chore. Barring any serious conditions like depression or anxiety (because I’m not a licensed mental health professional yet), I’ve found that something as simple as changing up my routine, getting out to see new places with people, and doing a bit of self-care can help refresh my feelings.

Writing is one of the ways I take care of myself. I put my thoughts in journals if I’m not ready to share them, and sometimes I put them into poems anyway. I don’t want this blog to turn into my online diary in which I vomit up all my feelings (that reminds me of this poem – go to page 40).

Sometimes writing is the cause of my frustrations – I don’t know where to turn in the story I’m currently working on, I wonder if I’ll ever be “good enough”, I can’t figure out how to balance the energy I’m spending with what I get in return.

But sometimes, it’s the only thing that gives any order to my thoughts.

It helps me remember and process my feelings. It forms the next piece of my story. I tend to reflect on most the experiences I’ve written about, no matter how major or minor they actually were.

I believe in creative expression as a therapeutic tool because it has helped me regain control and perspective over whatever is stressing me out that day or week. It helps me recognize unhealthy patterns in my thoughts and actions. When I’m feeling better, it reminds me where I’ve been as well as what I did to get out of that funk. And once I recognize it, I can try taking steps to prevent it from happening again.

Of course, it’s not simply a cure-all. If I’m writing fiction, as much as I learn about myself, it often seems like a great way to distract myself from my own, very real problems. And writing is complex work that, unlike other skills, doesn’t necessarily get any easier with practice because each piece has a different purpose and audience. It can be easy to give up altogether. But I know I have to keep going, wherever this road will take me.

Have you ever felt this way? What do you do to get out of a funk?

I’m a Writer of Tweets

Over the past year, I’ve gotten much more involved in the writing community on Twitter. My experience started with pitching in quarterly #PitMad contests, and then I naturally connected with other writers, both published and unpublished, indie and traditional, as well as professionals like agents and editors. There are fun writing-themed challenges, giveaways, contests, and fun conversations.

And GIFs. Don’t forget the GIFs and memes.

It may not seem like much, but I recently hit 500 followers. Sadly, though, when I went from 499 to 500, I found myself spending way too much time scrolling through the app, trying to stay relevant so I could get one follower closer to the next milestone, as if the number of people who followed me was a barometer for the quality or seriousness of my writing.

Checking my social media (you too, Instagram) soon began to eat up writing time. I felt like a fraud.

And I have to wonder why I fell victim to this trap. I’ve written previously about social media’s detriments to mental health and time management, so you’d think I would be able to notice when I was getting sucked into the void and keep my habits in check.

Well, I’m not perfect. But I do have a theory as to why it’s especially hard for writers to resist the allure of the little blue bird and the camera apps (insert your logo of choice here).

These days, whether self-published or have the backing of a traditional house, authors are expected to do more and more of their own marketing and promotion. And to get the most exposure, many turn to the various social channels, where they can build a community of readers and have instant connections and an audience waiting to buy their books and, perhaps more importantly, spread the word to their own friends and followers.

Agents and editors often discuss the importance of a writer’s platform, mostly in the context of nonfiction. In order to sell books, you have to prove your credibility by showing you have a willing audience. For fiction writers, you’re encouraged to have some kind of an online presence. Indie writers who do all the work themselves might rely entirely on their social media to promote their work.

Maybe the unpublished writers among us think that developing an online presence beforehand puts us a step ahead. But no follower count can substitute good writing.

It’s great to be connected, but I know I don’t want to be chained to an algorithm.

Summer Realizations and Fall Goals

Thanks to Heidi on Instagram for the topic suggestion!

I refuse to believe summer is almost over. Like most of you, probably, I don’t want to lose leisurely days off by the pool or long luxurious nights spent outside. I don’t want to be out of time for adventures and good spirits.

To add to the struggle, I’m anxious about starting grad school at the end of this month, and battling self-doubt in regard to my writing. Do I only have one book in me? Will I even have time to work on another? Maybe I should just wake up and realize this thing isn’t going anywhere.

I want to say to that part of my brain, JUST STOP AND SEE WHERE YOU ARE.

I graduated from college in May, and my overachieving mind barely paused to celebrate it. Maybe I was unfairly comparing myself to my peers, but I felt like I immediately had to dive into my freelance job, write as much as I could to get my name out there, and work on a second novel, all while trying to relax.

Don’t get me wrong, I did relax a lot of the days, but if I wasn’t on Official Relaxation Time like on vacation or at an actual destination, there was usually an undercurrent of guilt.

I was treating myself like a machine, and even the best machines break down. Then I’d get disappointed in myself for needing a break. I’d lash out at people for seemingly no reason. I’d push myself to stay up later and then sleep in way too late.

I’ve written previously about trying to let go of this perfectionism, and it’s definitely something I’ve realized I needed to work on over the summer. Especially in creative pursuits, you need to go easy on yourself. Discipline is great, but too much rigidity can take the fun out of things you’re supposed to love.

As for fall goals, I previously would’ve slid down all the things I didn’t accomplish this summer (looking at you, finished draft of Book #2) onto the list for this last quarter of 2019. Now I think I just want to adjust to my new environment and roles in life, and give myself realistic expectations and goals.

If that means having a fresh draft of a whole new book in my hands by the end of the year, great. If not, well, it’s not the end of the world. After all, writing isn’t a sprint, but a marathon.

Should I write a book about the creative life in the modern age, especially its relationship to technology and social media? I’ll add it to my endless list of ideas!

Celebrating My Successes

Thanks to Michelle for the topic suggestion!

In the writing community, we talk a lot about rejection. Fair enough, as it’s a regular experience for most writers. But for every pile of no’s, there’s going to be a yes if you persist.

I may not be everyone’s definition of a successful writer (yet). I have a handful of publications. No published novel (yet), no agent (yet). Some say I’m pointlessly opening myself up to further pain and rejection by pursuing the traditional path.

And it’s easy to indulge this wallowing, to feel less successful, especially when other writers’ triumphs are on display (thanks, social media – I’ll talk more about a writer’s relationship to the Internet in an upcoming post). What’s my tiny poem when she’s on her fourth book? Who cares about my articles when I barely have 500 followers?

In a subjective industry like writing, there’s a lot of pressure to stay relevant. To not get complacent, for complacency is laziness and disconnection, and those spell certain doom for creatives. This idea creates a culture where you’re always trying to chase your next idea, and you’re never quite satisfied with what you’ve already accomplished.

It’s okay to be hungry. But starving isn’t in your job description.

Lately, and I might only be realizing it as I write this, I’ve been trying to tell myself that every word written is a win. Those tiny victories may not look like the ultimate goal, but they are still stepping stones worthy of celebrating.

Maybe that’s also a clue into how I celebrate writing milestones as well. When I write another thousand words for my WIP or draft a poem I don’t hate, I don’t push myself to do more. I acknowledge what I’ve done and take a break without feeling guilty about it.

Ice cream is always a good celebration tool, too. 🙂

How do you celebrate your achievements? Let me know in the comments!