“Real” Writers Doing “Real” Work

From Hippocampus Magazine’s Writing Life Column, August 2017

For 10 years, I told myself I wasn’t a writer, but almost every single day, I wrote.

What was holding me back? Why couldn’t I say the word?

It felt pretentious – even now that I have publishing credits and bylines and have been employed by a few literary magazines, it still feels a little like I’m five years old and telling people, “I’m going to be president! I’m going to be an astronaut!” I mean, technically it’s possible – but it seems too far away, or large, or unknown to be real.

For the 10 years when I wasn’t a writer but still writing (basically my entire twenties), I did so in order to keep myself sane. During that time, I was struggling with an anxiety disorder and experiencing major depressive episodes, both of which had largely gone unaddressed.

This brings us to the first reason I couldn’t bring myself to call myself a writer – I didn’t like myself. I couldn’t imagine giving myself any credit for anything, especially an activity that felt so pedestrian. I mean, I had been doing it for my whole life. As soon as words started to make sense, my little brain clicked and screamed, “This is how you make sense of the world, girl!”  Writing was like brushing my teeth or going to the bathroom. It was something I did every single day so my body and my life kept working. It was maintenance for a messy, overcrowded, and very dark mind.

The second reason is also related to the anxiety and depression. I couldn’t really “write.” Anytime I tried to do it – that is, anytime I told myself, “I’m going to write!” and then sat down in front of a blank screen with the hopes of creating something cool and beautiful that I would want to share with everyone I knew because damn, how could I not? – I froze. Of course, now I know this approach was similar to saying, “I’m going to compete in a marathon,” without having run a little bit everyday for months beforehand. Funny enough, the big, intentional, this-is-going-to-be-good writing practically never seemed to come, but when it came to the crappy, rambling, couldn’t-make-sense-of-this-shit-if-you-paid-me writing, I couldn’t stop. It never occurred to me that within the hundreds of documents of crap I’d saved, there were tiny little seedlings of essays, just waiting for me to pay attention to them.

This is all to repeat the same message you’ve probably read from countless wise, experienced authors giving advice to younger ones – if you write, you’re a writer. That’s seemingly it. But while it’s easy to say that, I think it’s much harder to walk the walk. To believe it yourself. To call yourself the W-word without flinching. But maybe it’s about changing the way we acknowledge the word, and what it means.

When I was younger, and definitely during my 10-year self-imposed semi-hiatus, I used think Real Writers were people like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King. I thought they went somewhere (an office? their attic? a coffee shop?) at 9 a.m. and said, I’m at work now. I’m at writer-work. And then they would spew off brilliance, chapters and chapters of it, until 5 p.m. when they met other Real Writers to discuss narrative structure and 18th century character development over stiff martinis.

This meant that in my mind, practically everyone else who wrote – those just making it work, scribbling down ideas at lunchtime, those who went weeks without even touching a new project, those who made their living some other way, some distant place that had nothing to do with writing whatsoever – weren’t Real Writers. They – and of course, I mean we – were something else. Frauds? Impostors? Playing pretend until we “made it big?”

Thinking about it now, it’s so insulting, not just to myself, but to every writer who wasn’t visible to me (or perhaps just wasn’t visible, period). Those who published books that didn’t make it to Amazon’s front page. Those who did readings in cities I didn’t live in. Those who self-published. Those who hustled and worked and never published at all. Those who went to the coffee shop or office or attic every day and just did the work because they needed to – no fanfare, no book parties, no options or agents or broadsides. Those who wrote because it was how they made sense of the world. Those who might not have the opportunity (or even the desire) to make it to the point where everything else in life disappears because being this thing – A Real Writer – was all they needed.

After those 10 non-writer years, it took getting laid off and falling into a deep depressive episode for me to figure out that no one single thing – not even writing – can save us. The perfect job will do nothing for you if all the other parts of life suffer, or starve, or disappear. When I got laid off, I was devastated, but also confused – why was this so difficult? I didn’t even LIKE the damn job I lost! But losing it made me reach elsewhere in my life for something good, and when I did, I found a writing life that had gone ignored and buried, and friends I had neglected to stay in touch with because I was too busy achieving some impossible picture of success.

While the depression and anxiety didn’t magically disappear once I started to re-balance my life and integrate work and writing and my friendships more thoughtfully, I did learn how to navigate the rocky terrain of my brain much better. Having a lot of different baskets to put my eggs in, as it were, made me feel less panicked about everything working out perfectly. If I got a writing rejection, if I lost another job, if a friend turned their back on me – I’d have another reason to wake up in the morning. Learning to forgive myself for being imperfect, for not achieving Real Writer-dom, for wasting 10 years feeling distinctly not good enough – it opened up the room I needed to do the real work of my life.

I see now that the books and the tours and the notoriety are simply byproducts of that real work, the work that is messy and imperfect and happens at all hours of the night day and that, quite often, feels like scrambling in the dark. That even J.K. Rowling and Stephen King spent hours staring at a blank screen, working random non-writing-related jobs, refusing to call themselves the W-word because it didn’t feel real.

This is not a new idea or an earth-shattering realization, but it’s no less important. Real Writers all look very different, and all manage their writing lives in different and interesting and valuable ways, and all the other things they are heavily inform that identity and practice. This column can be a space for their voices to come to the forefront. For the invisible to become visible. For those who still might not be able to call themselves Real Writers to see that they are not impostors, doomed to languish in the shadows of the literary illuminati until they somehow, someday, make it big. They – and of course, I mean we – are big enough already. We are bigger than we even realize.

As the new editor of this column, I’m looking for fresh perspectives on the writing life. If you have an idea or a piece that might be right for the column, contact me at rpnonfiction (at) gmail.com

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