As a librarian, I often get questions about how to write a book, how to get published, what makes a good book, etc. In this series, I give my best thoughts on these issues as a resource for future students of writing.
One of the most frequent questions I get at the reference desk is: “How do I become a writer?”
Now, I get a lot of hard questions. I’ve been asked for an audiobook of the Bible in the original language. I’ve been asked to find a World War II survivor’s childhood home in England, which she fled during the Blitz. I’ve been asked for medical, legal, and even relationship advice. Sometimes there just is no easy answer.
I’ve been trying to convince myself I’m a writer for 20-something years, ever since I picked up a Garfield notebook in third grade and started writing little stories in it. At first, writing was something fun I could do in my spare time. Then it became something I had to do to let off steam. Then an English teacher pronounced me talented, and suddenly writing was a competition. I had to get better at it, not necessarily to be better than I was before, but to be better than other people. I clawed and fought and typed to earn others’ approval. I won some contests, got some articles published, lost some contests, got a lot of rejection letters. And through all that time, after all those words, I still couldn’t call myself a writer.
Not everyone liked me, and that meant I wasn’t good enough.
If you want to be a writer, you need to face this impostor syndrome head-on, over and over, and the only way to do that is to put yourself first.
This may seem counterproductive, especially if you practice empathy (which I do). Being kind to others is a necessity in today’s world. But if you do things that don’t make sense for you just to please someone else, then you will not have the energy to do what you want – which, I assume, is become a writer.
It took me a long time to understand that controlling the happiness of other people is not possible.
The only person you can make happy is yourself.
When I relentlessly pursued the approval of others, I lost myself. Writing lost its joy – it became something I had to do in order to maintain my identity. If I didn’t write, I beat myself up. I told myself I’d never get to the goals I wanted to achieve, even though I didn’t have any well-defined goals (more on goals in a future post). The point is that all this worry poisoned my life, and I continued to feel like an impostor on top of it.
I needed to change focus. I needed to put myself first in order to fully embrace my identity. When the rest of the world melted away, I was a writer. I was putting words on a page, stringing sentences together, developing characters.
Whether anyone cared or not, I was a writer.
By the way, other people’s non-writing expectations of you factor into this, too. Does your mother think your house should be sparkling clean? Does your spouse expect you to have dinner on the table every night? Does your boss want you to stay past quitting time even when it’s not necessary? You’re allowed to set your own boundaries, and if there’s a toxic person in your life getting in your way, you might need to address those issues.
You must practice self-care. Nourish your self-esteem. Do things that relax you and make you proud. Sometimes those things are hard – we can only grow when we get outside our comfort zone. But sometimes those things are as easy as closing your eyes and feeling the air move around your face.
I recently saw Sisters in Crime past president Laura diSilverio speak at an event. She talked a lot about the sobering reality of writing and publishing today: most people cannot earn a living from writing. So we must remember that joy comes from the writing process. We won’t magically feel better when we’re published. We won’t feel validated when we hit the New York Times bestseller list. Even Lee Child compares himself to James Patterson in sales. We are all striving for something, and that’s never going to end. Again – that’s how we grow.
So, my long answer to that short reference question: the first step to becoming a writer is to become self-aware. Actually, that’s also the first step to becoming human.