Let’s get down to it. If you want to be a writer chances are you’ve wanted to be a writer since before you can remember.
It was probably about the time you experienced your first really good story — you know, the moment when the hairs on your arms stood up and you forgot where you were and who was with you, and you got the feeling that there was a lot more to this grand old life than most people realised.
And chances are that this feeling never left you. As you carefully chose your serious subjects at school and went on to study medicine and then became a doctor and settled down and had kids and bought a house and took out the rubbish bins and made dinner at night, that feeling followed you everywhere. It never went away.
Most people will never write so much as a tweet in their whole lives and still manage to live an extremely satisfied existence. But that’s not you. And whether or not you come to it late in life after a long career in something else, or you wrote your first play when you were five and never stopped, there are some things that you will need to get over in order to make your writing dream a reality.
The first thing to die must be your own insecurities. Easier said than done. This is something you’ll have to battle every day for the rest of your writing career, because unless you have the unshakeable ego of, say, Napoleon Bonaparte, those doubts will niggle you every waking moment.
The thing is if you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will. Don’t apologise for wanting to be a writer. Don’t apologise for thinking that you can be a writer. Don’t mumble when people ask you what you’re working on. If they don’t get it, who cares. You get it. That’s all that matters.
- Other people
Just to be clear, no one is going to fully understand your work except you. No one is going to care about your work like you do. When people ask how your weekend was and you say “I slept three hours and wrote 10 000 words and my brain is like a dried up prune” not only will they mentally roll their eyes, they will immediately compare your sitting on your butt in front of a computer screen all weekend to the fact that they had to take their oldest to three different birthday parties, their youngest to soccer training, have ten people over for dinner, walk the dog, mow the lawn, get root canal and paint the house.
They don’t give a crap and they probably never will. In fact many of them will resent you for having the courage to try. Don’t look for encouragement in others, even in close friends and family, because many of them will simply not get it. And that’s the way it is.
Writing is one of the most time-consuming activities in the known universe. Even if you write 3 000 words a day (which takes most people about 5-6 hours), it will take you thirty days straight to write a 90 000 word manuscript. That’s if you literally do nothing else for a whole month. Add to that full-time work, family, weddings, funerals, sickness, appointments, birthday parties, holidays, and actually having a life (so maybe one hour of writing a day if you’re lucky) and it will take you around six to eight months. Add to that research, slow periods, moments of despair/writer’s block/questioning the meaning of life, and you’re looking at twelve months. Absolute minimum. For a first draft. Then comes the rewrite, editing, reworking, burning it in the backyard and starting all over again, blah blah bah.
The point is it requires serious dedication and deliberate effort to even get a first draft on paper. It will require you to stay home when everyone else is going out. You’ll miss birthdays, dinners, events, and holidays, often to the great offence of everyone around you. No one will understand because your deadline is self-directed, and people rarely respect a person’s self-prescribed goals (go figure). But if you want to write, you have to actually write. And that takes real time.
- Where you came from
Some people are born into artistic families. Most people aren’t. Some are born into culturally fortunate locations where inspiration and opportunities and contacts abound. Most aren’t. Some people get recognised in their formative years and get useful legs-up in the creative world. Most people don’t. These are things you have little control over. But it doesn’t mean they have to stay that way.
If you need to move to a more conducive artistic environment, then do it. If you need to change who you hang around so you can get inspired, then do it. If you need to remodel so you have a useful writing space, then do it. If you need to change jobs, degrees or fields of study in order to get the input you need, then do it. Most people don’t. But you should.
Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.
– Stephen King, On Writing
The rules state that you have to go to school then go to uni then get a job so you have money to buy a car, get married, buy a house, have a family, go on family holidays, invest in superannuation and retire.
Thing is, you don’t.
Spending two years of your life writing a novel goes against all rational conventions. Do it anyway. You may have to delay other things in your life to get it done. Do it anyway. You may decide that you need to drop out of uni, postpone a life event, or turn down a great job to get done. Do it anyway.
Just don’t get to the end of your life never having tried.
Most writers will have to work mundane jobs for a long time before they are able to live off their writing. Some writers will never live off their writing. Work will always get in the way. You need to manage it. If that means getting a different job so that you have more time/energy/brain space to write, then do it.
Writing is work. It’s not a hobby. It’s not a fun idea to kill some time. It’s not a phase. It’s not a therapeutic exercise. It’s damn hard work and it’s no less worthy of respect than any other job.
If you write always worrying about what other people will think then you’ll never put a word on paper.
In order to be true to your genre, characters, story, whatever, you may need to write graphic sex scenes, violence, abuse, morally shocking behavior, drugs, mental and physical illnesses, gosh you may even have to use a four-letter word or two.
Yes, your granny might be offended. Or your colleagues/parents/friends/family. Know what? Too bad. If you want to write faithfully, you’ll have to ruffle some feathers. Any questions? Refer to Stephen King above.
There may come a time when you decide you need to spend a solid three months on your book. You may need to take unpaid leave. You may even need to quit your job. Again, no one else will understand or care. They will tell you that you’re crazy because a promotion is just around the corner, or that you’re leaving the team in the lurch, or that certain projects won’t happen if you’re not there.
In the end, this is your life and your future, not theirs. Work out which one matters most.
So when you decided to be a writer you thought you would be the next James Joyce. Then you started writing and you realised that what came out was guns and car chases. Does that make you a second-rate writer?
Write what you want to write. Don’t write to win the Booker prize or the Nobel prize or to be the next J.K. Rowling. There are plenty of authors out there who are writing from ambition and I can guarantee that deep down they know they’re not being honest with themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our most lauded literary minds will lie on their deathbeds wishing they had created the next James Bond instead of their pseudo-literary award-winning ‘masterpieces’.
- Other writers
The great thing about finally owning up to your dirty little secret is that you’ll start to find some like-minded people. You’ll find workshops, seminars, competitions, writing groups, writing centres, and literary fetsivals. You’ll find beta readers and crit partners and people who just love sharing your work and talking about it. And then you’ll find your share of nasties — people who are just plain rude or ridiculously elitist or want nothing to do with anyone else because they are the ultimate lone wolf.
In the end, writing, like any creative pursuit, is a small and competitive field and some people are in it to win and they don’t care about anything else. They’ll resent your success and then smugly rub their success in your face. They will use you for a profile boost and then clamber over you up the literary social ladder. So find the good ones and don’t let them go. The rest? Forget them.
- What you could have been
Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. People tell me I could have been a singer. I could have been a performer. I could have been a music director. I could have been a professor. I could have been a principal. I could have been an actress. I could have been an academic. That’s all great. But I have only one life. And I’m at least going to try to do what I really want to do.
And you should too.