When people ask me when I knew I wanted to be a writer, I always tell them that I never did want to be a writer. I wanted to write. Being a writer was something that happened by accident.
Recently someone asked me what I meant. Surely, if you want to write, that kind of assumes you want to be a writer.
Well, that depends on how you define “writer.” If you define “writer” as someone who writes, then “being a writer” is trivial: you sit down and write something, and presto! You’re a writer. It’s not this huge thing to aspire to, because it’s too easy. By that definition, I’ve been a writer since I started working on my first story back in seventh grade.
Most folks, of course, aren’t talking about that basic definition when they speak of “being a writer.” What they mean is being a published writer, a career writer, a professional writer, a full-time writer. And what they’re really asking about is rather more complex than the question sounds.
Because there are two parts to “being a writer” the way they mean it. There’s writing, and there’s what happens afterward. Most of the people who talk about “being a writer,” whether they’re asking the question or whether they’re announcing to the world that they themselves want to be writers, are either talking about the perceived glamour and respect and status that they think goes along with publication and a writing career, or else they’re talking about the validation of getting published – the fact that someone, somewhere, has deemed their story worthy.
All that is stuff that happens after the writing part, if it happens at all. (And when it does happen, it’s nothing at all like the rosy dreams people have of what it’s going to be like…but that’s a different post, I think.)
Wanting to write means wanting to get the words down on paper (or, these days, pixels); wanting to tell stories; wanting to get the stories right on as many levels as possible. It’s not about the stuff that happens to the paper or pixels after the story is written.
Which is not to say that I never desired publication; on the contrary, getting my stories published was a goal from the time I realized such a thing might be possible, which was around age thirteen. But I never wrote in order to get published. I wrote in order to get the story down and get it right. Publication was one of several possible proofs that I’d done what I set out to do; it was also the most effective way of getting the stories out and read by other people. (This was not only pre-Internet, it was pre-personal-computers.)
I don’t remember publication ever being the same kind of goal that the writing itself was. I didn’t sneak time in class or jot weird notes in the margins of my textbooks because I wanted to be published. I didn’t spend my lunch hours and coffee breaks at my office typing instead of chatting with my coworkers or eating with my friends in order to get published. I did it because I wanted to tell the story. I wanted to find out how I would get it to turn out right. (Sometimes, I just wanted to find out what would happen; I don’t always know in advance.)
People who talk about “being a writer” usually don’t want to write; they want to have written. They want to skip ahead to the part that comes after the writing. They want the status, or they want the validation.
And while validation is lovely, and all the publication and publicity stuff is certainly a necessary and legitimate part of a writing career, they’re not writing. Hardly anyone who wants to have written makes it to publication, and if they do, they usually don’t continue past one or two books, because if you are going to “be a writer,” you spend 80% of your career time writing. Not doing the stuff that comes afterwards. And 80% of your time is way too much to spend doing something you don’t really enjoy, just to get to the “good parts.”
The flip side of this, of course, is that unless one aspires to be Emily Dickenson and only ever publish posthumously, one does have to think about selling and publication and publicity at some point. Validation is important; so are sales (especially if one hopes to make a living at this). Ignoring or sneering at the business end of writing is just as problematic as wanting to skip over the writing part and get to the afterwards.
The difference is that if one truly can’t stand the sales, publication, and publicity part, one can skip it completely. Nobody goes around arm-twisting people into sending their manuscripts out, or querying editors, or even just putting their stuff up on one of the freebie web sites. If one wants to be Emily Dickenson, nobody will stop you (though people will probably look at you funny if you tell them, so perhaps it’s better not to mention it).
If, however, it’s the writing part that one strongly dislikes, one is pretty much up a creek. You can’t sell a book that hasn’t been written yet (not the first time, anyway…and it’s getting harder even for writers with a proven track record). You can’t publish a non-existent manuscript, or even an incomplete one; you certainly can’t do all the sales-and-marketing stuff for a book that doesn’t exist.
What it comes down to is being honest with oneself about why one is doing this. The professonal writers I know range from barely tolerating the publication-and-after stuff to reveling in it with great glee, but what keeps all of us at this job is the writing part. Telling stories. Making things up. Even for the writers who most enjoy the publicity bits.