Two weeks ago I was at a book conference, sitting at a table filled with both published and aspiring authors. I struck up a conversation with a nice woman at my table, who told me that after years of toiling at various jobs she was thrilled to now be a full time writer. When I asked what she’d published, she said she had written one draft of one novel and was thinking about starting another one. For some reason this bothered me, probably more than it should have, and it’s been like a popcorn kernel stuck between my teeth. What she said touched a nerve, I just haven’t been able to shake it. I’m not picking on this woman–she seemed perfectly nice and loved books and people like that should never be taken for granted–but I couldn’t help but think that if she truly wanted to be a writer, she’s going about it completely wrong. And the reason I believe her comment bothered me is that many aspiring writers I’ve met over the last few years have very similar attitudes, that once you put a pen to the page or bang out a few pages you’re officially a ‘Writer.’ This is not to come across as elitist, it’s not to create a division between published and unpublished writers, but in my opinion if you want to be a writer, that way of thinking harms your writing more than anything.
While I was working on the book that would eventually become THE MARK, I rarely talked about it, and then only if shocked with a cattle prod. My family and a few close friends knew I was working on a book, but to me it wasn’t worth talking about until it was finished. And even then, I didn’t think it was much worth talking about unless it actually found a publisher. I didn’t want to ever spend time talking about ‘My Book.’ My book. My book. My book. I have met so many aspiring writers who spend countless minutes and hours talking about ‘My Book,’ that if they took that time and put it towards the actual manuscript, ‘My Book’ would inch closer to being on a shelf somewhere. Occasionally some of my family members would ask, “How does it feel to be a writer?” I would usually hem and haw and give one word answers like, “Good” and “Fine,” just to be pleasant. But in my own mind my answer was always, “I’m not a writer…yet.”
To me, being able to call myself a writer was akin to lunging for that carrot hanging off the end of a stick. It was something to aspire to, but in order to reach it I needed to earn it. Slapping a label on my work-in-progress was easy, giving myself the title of ‘Writer’ without having published anything would have made things oh so simple. But if you set the bar too low, you can leap over it without any difficulty, without trying, without pushing yourself. By calling herself a “full time writer” despite not having completed even a second draft of one novel, I felt this woman was doing herself a disservice. If she had talent, she was cheating it. Taking batting practice does not make one a baseball player. Using a calculator does not make one a mathematician. Wiping the crust from my dog’s eyes does not make me a of veterinarian. These are all professions. They take years of training and study and work. And while you never get a certificate that proclaims you a ‘Professional Writer’, not allowing to think of myself as a writer until I was published was a powerful motivational tool. Writing is a wonderful, cathartic thing, and I would never, ever discourage anyone from ‘writing’. I am simply discouraging people from calling themselves ‘Writers’ until they have accomplished their goal. If your goal is to write one draft, so be it. But I have a feeling most writers aspire to more.
Becoming a ‘Professional Writer’ is nowhere near as easy as writing a first draft of one novel. It takes numerous drafts of one novel. And then maybe numerous drafts of a second, third, or even fourth novel. Too many writers waste time worrying about agents and marketing and query letters, and not enough honing their craft so that when an agent or editor reads the book, they’re blown away. I wrote two books before THE MARK got published. The first book was a coming-of-age story about a college freshman who must discover who he really is. It did not deserve to be published. I still love the story, but I was simply not a good enough writer. My second novel was something of a literary thriller, about a bartender whose life is manipulated in order to make his upcoming memoir more exciting (and therefore salable). This book came close to selling, but in the end did not. With my third book, I finally wrote something that, when my agent began submitting it, I felt had a real chance. And it did, selling in a three-book deal. I loved my first two books, but had they been published I doubt many people would have enjoyed them. I’m sure there were some redeeming qualities about each, but in the end I’m glad they weren’t published.
If you aspire to be a writer, do yourself a favor and don’t call yourself a ‘Writer’. I’m sure many people have gone about it differently, and what worked for me won’t necessarily work for others, but don’t allow yourself to eat the carrot simply by sticking your hand out a few inches. Hold it out there in front of you. Walk for it, run for it, grasp for it. When the time comes, you’ll be able to reach it. Just don’t sell yourself short by holding it an inch from your mouth, then congratulate yourself for leaning forward far enough to take a bite.