Friday, January 04, 2008

What Is A Writer?

Not just anybody can write. Yet most literate people in America have written something at some point in their lives. Are they writers? I believe that certain elements must come together to call yourself a writer. Like lining up the moon, the planets, and the stars. Elements more precious than just putting words on paper. Or just because you call yourself one. Giving yourself a certificate to write … does not really make you a writer. Sorry. Otherwise, anybody who owns a pencil could call himself a writer. That, my friend, dilutes the beauty of being a writer for the rest of us.

I could call myself a singer. I have sung a few solos in public. But it doesn’t make me a singer. I could say, “Screw what everybody thinks. I’m a singer.” But I’d fall short. Though I love to sing, I’m not a singer.

My dad loves to write. He’s penned many beautiful letters. Even a few stories. But he doesn’t profess to be a writer. What he is, is a storyteller. He knows little about the craft of writing. Doesn't know. Doesn't care to know. His purpose in writing is for his own benefit and for his children's pleasure. He loves to entertain us with his humor and recollections of his childhood, and occasionally he’ll write them down and send them to us. He dabbles in poetry. He writes out his Bible lessons and his thoughts on various aspects of theology. Often, Daddy types out his childhood memories on a manual Royal typewriter. And once in a while, he records himself on tape.

He’s a brilliant man. A master craftsman in woodworking … and in storytelling. He could be a writer, if he wanted to. But he doesn’t. His other passions in life far outweigh his desire to write and publish.

So what is a writer? Writers possess raw talent, unique voice, commitment, passion, and a dedication and determination to see their work in print. The desire to have their words read by the masses is an all-consuming obsession, a force, and a fire that isn’t easily quenched.

Writers have a message. Many have had dreams to write for a very long time. I would be the first to encourage any emerging writer to press on toward the mark … the mark of an author. But remember that the reward of seeing your work in print … has to be enough. You’re not going to get rich. (Although some do, the odds are stacked against you.) Not everybody is going to flock to Borders and Joseph Beth to buy your book. Not even if you think your story is Pulitzer material.

Okay, so that's the reality of it. Ah, but wait. Is it wrong to dream about selling a million copies of your book? To harbor such secrets, such lofty goals of success in your heart? Is it possible that silly dreams like these might propel a writer to achieve local, regional, even national success? International? (Some would say, God forbid. How dare you, you conceited writer, you.)

IF writing is your passion, (there’s that word again) if you dream it, eat it, sleep it, if it bubbles out of each breath you take, then by all means, be it. Get yourself published … one way or another. New York is not the only way to get published these days. (Yet a New York agent and publisher is a big dream for many writers. If it's your dream, then hold on to it.) At any rate, educate yourself in the publishing industry. In my opinion, if you don’t have the desire to see your work in print, then writing is just a hobby. A pastime. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In a sense, the world needs those kinds of writers. And if that’s all you aspire to, do it with gusto. But yes, write to publish!

Why not?

If you study the art of writing AND if you’ve got a storytelling gene, the world needs to read your work.

Now, that being said, not everyone can write a book, and not everybody should. There’s more to writing a book than the writing of it. If you don’t have the desire to market your book, then just write as a hobby and don't go to the expense of self-publishing. And don't expect New York publishers to market for you. It's not that you're in the wrong business, it's just that you need to know what to expect from it. You are not always going to get out of it, what you've put into it. Unfortunately.

So, tell me now, how much do you love writing? More than life itself? That's good. It's going to take all that warm, fuzzy love to carry you through the dark hours when you feel like a loser. The best way to avoid those pitfalls, is to quit listening to family members, friends, and other writers and experts who are so quick to kill your dreams, squash your efforts, and belittle what you've already accomplished with their "reality checks."

What lengths are you willing to go to get your book into the hands of your readers? The bottom line is, unless you’ve experienced that kind of sidewalk-pounding-sell-your-book-out-of-the-trunk-of-your-car marketing, you have no clue. You don’t know how hard it is. Marketing your book, is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. But the rewards are tremendous. Sure, it's tough. But you can learn how to market your work. There's many a good teacher out there. Lots of valid support. Authors are coming together these days and they're finding ways to get the word out. Never let marketing scare you or stop you.

Sure fine, once again I'll say that unless you’re one of the rare few that landed a great agent with connections to the New York publishing houses, you’re not going to be rich overnight. Writers are not rich. Well, not many of them. But it still shouldn't stop you from going after that brass ring! Why not shoot for the stars? Okay, try to keep a level head about it, but why not go for it? What's stopping you? If that's what you want, don't let some mealy-mouthed wanna-be influence you with, "writing is enough. Just putting words on paper is my reward. If I'm never published, my writing makes be happy ..." Waa-waa-waa. I'm really sick of some writers criticizing other writers for wanting breakout status. Just as there's nothing wrong with being humble, meek, and writing a legacy to your grandchildren, there's also nothing wrong with wanting to see your name on the NY TIMES BESTSELLING LISTS!

There's nothing haughty about that. If you're going to dream. DREAM BIG. Dreams, often, come true. Whose to say yours won't?

Alright. We've stated that it's okay to dream. But let's fall back to earth for a moment, shall we? "Reality check." Oh my gosh, God forbid, but do you write because you believe the world will flock to Borders and Joseph Beth to buy your book? Do you call yourself a writer because your friends and family said your story is the greatest story they've ever read? Hmmm. Let's think about that. Right now, it may be a long shot. Some would even think it arrogant to state such a thing. But what's wrong in aspiring to it? I can't believe when Dan Brown began to write, that he never, not one time, dreamed about his books becoming successful. That he thought to himself, I'm just going to sit my butt in the chair, put my hands on the keyboard, and be thankful I'm writing. Give me a break. The man knew he had talent. He knew he was on to something. He knew that if he dreamed big enough, pushed himself hard enough, he might just see his work read by millions.

There are plenty of experts out there that have written blogs, books, chapters, and article after article to discourage you. Too many. The odds are against you. Against us all. It's true. But if you can read them and still keep your dreams of successful publishing alive, then good for you! Strive to beat the odds. Perfect your craft, attend writing conferences, take classes, write your heart out. Then go on to win that contest or publish that book.

Get my point? Lofty goals are not a waste of time, just keep yourself grounded. Don't be haughty about them. Know who you are and be the best writer you can be. You may see a few of those lofty, haughty dreams come true. Keep them to yourself and smile when somebody tells you that your only goal as a writer should be to "just write."

Speaking of keeping yourself grounded, be aware that enthusiastic career goals and believing in your dreams is one thing ... getting your work edited and finding out the first part of your book sucks ... can knock the wind out of you. There are mountains to climb along the way. Like having your work edited again and again--then after your 17th draft--when you think you've written a masterpiece, you find it needs yet another rewrite. If you still want to be a writer after working on one paragraph for a week, I salute you. If you can still call yourself a writer after a hundred rejections, then you are one. If you write NOT to be praised but because you have a message, a story, a love for the craft, then you can consider yourself a giant among many. If you can write without fear, then darling, you may just be a writer!

My point is, yes writing is an uphill climb, but know the real reality of it is that it's a juggling act. One day you're on top, believing this is your year! The next day, you don't want to be within ten feet of your computer. True. But the success of writing is not an impossible dream. Keep your dreams alive, and get all fired up (kind of like I am today) when somebody tells you to be satisfied with "just writing."

Oh yeah, here's another piece of "reality." Unless you can afford a kick-butt PR firm, or you have a degree in public relations, you’re going to start at the beginning. Like the rest of us. And learn the hard way. I teach a class at Writing Conferences called, Public Relations, Publicity, and Pulling Your Hair Out. My colleague, Dena Harris, and I pull no punches. Even with conventional publishing, you’re going to be your best publicist. BUT ... DON'T LET REALITY STOP YOU. And you don't allow discouraging people (who think they know it all) to get in your way. All in all, it's a double-edged sword you're holding. One side is painful reality, the other is the dream of success. Disappointment and rejection is a sure thing, but you can't let it stop you from dreaming. That, in itself, is failure.

So … are you a writer?

Writing is my passion, yes, but I also write because I want my work published. Oh, get over it! So do you and don’t lie. If you’re a real writer, you want to see your work in print. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s admirable. In fact, it forces you to perfect your writing, to be better than average, pushes you to breakout status and what’s wrong with that?

Those who are NOT writers don’t care if their story is well crafted, they couldn't give a flip if their characters are not larger than life, or if their plot lacks tension. They’re really not --- writers.

Make sense?

Please forgive me for being a bit preachy today. Long-winded. Mouthy. Pissed off. But I love writers. I love who and what they are, inside and out. I love and appreciate those who write out of their pain and their pleasures. I love writers with enormous dreams and big hearts. So, write for the right reasons, if you must. If you write just to make yourself happy, then fine. Write your butt off. But real writing comes from deep in your gut. It’s often painful. It sometimes rips your heart out. You’ll cry. You’ll find yourself tossing at night. You’ll laugh, too. You’ll laugh hard and long. But writing also hurts. And it cleanses. Yes indeedy, writing is about the journey, for MOST folks who call themselves writers.

For the rest of us, it’s also about the destination. And you better remember to turn around and lift another writer up along the way. Because being a writer, even a penniless one, means offering support and encouragement to any writer you meet.

Raw talent, unique voice, commitment, passion, luck … all these things are important. But in essence I’ve found that being a writer means different things to different people. Nobody has all the answers, and the rules bend. You’re a writer because you work hard at your craft and you possess the storytelling gene. You’re a writer because you’d rather write than just about anything. You’re a writer because before you die, you want to see your work in print. You're a writer because you've produced the evidence. You’re NOT a writer, just because you say you’re one.

There’s a difference.

One of my favorite authors of all time says it all: "Writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer. There are people who write, but I think they're quite different from people who must write." —Harper Lee

Blessings to you and yours.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"And yes I said yes," James Joyce wrote those words, and I'm stealing them now. YES! I am a writer! Your words have lifted me up, giving me support and encouragement. I write because it is like breath to me. I can't live without it, and I have something I want to share with the world. I'll keep at it until my words find their readers. Thanks for a great blog.