Monday, January 11, 2016

Being a Writer

Recently I digging through boxes in my mom's basement and was wondering why she has held on go my old retainer for the past 20 years archiving my childhood when I happened upon a book I had written in the fourth grade. 

Since my awkward stage lasted from age eight-15, 
here's an author photo from when I was five. 
I wrote many as a child; perhaps you're familiar with some of my early work? My first publication was circa third grade . It was a horror-comedy (I was mixing genre at a very young age) entitled Gladys the Giggling Goblin. I soon followed up the success of my debut by trying my talents in the field of drama with, A Horse Called Rosedust. Quickly after that I co-authored a joke book with a friend named Lindsey (most of my friends were named Lindsay or Lindsey as a child, but I remembered that this was the Lindsey with an "e"); however, I'm almost certain we plagiarized all of our material. I distinctly remember illustrating a page for the joke "Why is six afraid of seven?", and I was not a clever enough child to have come up with "Because seven eight nine" all on my own (or even with the help of Lindsey). At best then, I can claim credit for compiling the joke book rather than authoring it.

While my subjects and genres may have varied from one book to the next, there were two things I made sure to include in any publication I put my name on: a dedication page and an author bio section. The dedication page for me was easy. I think almost every book I ever wrote was dedicated to my Granny. She was my favorite person in the whole world growing up, and if she were still here the same would be true today. She was the kind of person who deserved to have things dedicated to her, bigger things than my little stories, like maybe hospital wings or art museums. But since I was never asked to weigh-in on the dedication of parts of buildings, I settled for dedicating my books to her, including Songs Eight Six.

See? You get it now.
The author bio pages of my books were also pretty standard. Typically I included my age (something I would not do now), and usually I proclaimed my undying love for Chicago Cubs first baseman, #17 Mark Grace (again, something I wouldn't do today... probably). However, while thumbing through these early editions of my writing, there was one author bio that struck me:

I stared at this page for a long time.

When we're young, the number of professions we know of are limited. We usually are at least vaguely aware what our parents do for a living. Most of us know what doctors and teachers are because we have business relationships with them. We're also familiar with most of the jobs that answer the question posed in the Sesame Street song "Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?". However, I don't know that in the fourth grade when I wrote this bio page that I was aware that being a writer was a viable occupation. After all, I didn't personally know anyone who identified themselves this way, and Bob McGrath never sang a verse about the local neighborhood writer. So, I didn't consider "being a writer" a type of career path. Instead, I just thought writing was something people did for fun, and I thought it was fun, so it's what I said I wanted to be. I didn't think of it as a real job.

I kinda wish I'd never learned otherwise.

Recently, I left my day job. There were a few reasons it was time to do this that related to the season of life my family was entering into (I needed to adapt to new school schedules, the commute was becoming ridiculous, etc.), but topping the list was that I wanted to devote more time to writing. You see, sometime between fourth grade and now I had learned that being a writer is a legitimate career for a lot of people. I'd become aware of such jobs as novelists, playwrights, journalists, screenwriters, columnists, essayists...the lists goes on and on. 

The Pottery Barn version of being a writer
However, when I thought about pursuing the dream of writing as my job, the definition of  "writer" I imagined was a very narrow one. It involved a desk, a window, a laptop, lots of coffee, and an never dwindling supply of inspiration. I was confident I would be pumping out two to three novels a year with my roughly thirty hours of writing time now available to me each week. "Being a writer" never felt so possible. 

Except that after about a month of doing this, I became completely discouraged.

I started my first novel in 2011 and published it in 2013. At the time I had two children under five and two part-time jobs. In the past two-and-a-half years, my kids have become school age (so my daytime attention isn't solely devoted to them like it was), I left one of my part-time jobs (and can manage the other one as I wish). I've started two more novels, writing over 200,000 words in them combined. 

And as of last week, I had deleted 190,000 of them.

I wasn't inspired. I wasn't passionate. I wasn't a writer. I felt like I was failing every day, all the time. I couldn't escape the tunnel vision of what I had expected being a writer to look like, and it had killed me wanting to be a writer at all. 

Which is fine, I realized. It's totally acceptable for me to quit writing. So, that's what I did. 

For a few days, I let this be true. I quit. I didn't give two weeks notice. I didn't train anyone to replace or assign anyone to finish the works in progress. I was just done. And it felt so good.

For a few days. 

And then, it didn't anymore. 

I missed creating. I missed storytelling. I missed whatever it was that made my ten-year-old self want to be a writer when I grew up. 

In her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert speaks to frustrations such as mine (and countless others...Seriously you guys, this book is amazeballs inspiring). She knows how to do this because she's been where I'm at. Most writers want to quit being writers at some point, she claims. After all, writing can be an extremely lonely, very thankless, highly criticized, deeply vulnerable job to impose upon one's self. 
Example of what I mean by "deeply vulnerable and highly-criticized." Also, I think s/he meant to write "review" and not "reread." I certainly wouldn't want to reread a piece of crap, and I wouldn't expect this reviewer to either. 

But that's the thing I realized--I imposed this upon myself. Being writer was a choice I made, and I made it because I like writing. I've always liked writing. Long before I ever had a reader, I was writing. I like writing because it's fun. Sometime in the past few months I think I forgot that. I started defining writer as something I had to do instead of something I wanted to do. Success became a goal that I thought I had some sort of control over achieving instead of it being a feeling of satisfaction in the work I enjoy. And subsequently, I didn't enjoy it anymore. 

One of my favorite parts of Big Magic is when Gilbert talks about her own decision to become a writer: 

Like Gilbert, I feel fortunate to have found that nothing interests me more than writing. Many people spend their entire lives with nothing interesting them at all. It's a privilege then, to be frustrated doing what I love than to love nothing and feel no frustration. Given those two sides of the coin, I'd call frustrated every time.

So, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to be frustrated and keep writing. Because when it comes down to it, I still really want to be a writer when I grow up, whether or not it's a real job.