There comes a time in every writer’s journey when she needs to put down the pens – pencils, typewriter, whatever medium she uses for her craft – and realize putting words on a page will get her nowhere. It’s a difficult truth to swallow, but there it is. In essence, we’re wasting our time.
Let me explain. I’ve wanted to be a writer since the moment I learned books could contain more than just pictures. From as early as five years old I was writing stories, albeit with crayons as opposed to through word documents. While I’ve entertained the idea of other careers – lawyer, doctor, secret agent, race car driver at one point – I always found that the desire to enter those fields stemmed from the excitement with which books or TV shows described them. I was in love with the adrenaline the written word could create, just by stringing together the right descriptors, the right verbs, the right writing. Even back then I knew there was more thrill on the pages of my books than in the actual careers I wanted to throw myself into.
I didn’t start writing with any sort of regularity until my second semester of college, freshman year. A few friends and I were snowed in our dorm for a week – anyone remember that Snowpocalypse of 2014? – and like any introvert I needed some space after the first two days of Netflix and chatter. I sealed myself up in my bedroom and browsed on social media, coming across some photos from high school. I began to piece them together, the story of my senior year, one of discovery, heartache, ambitious dreams that either came to fruition or fizzled out of existence. I pulled out my journal and started writing a passage about it, the year of almosts. When I finished, my pen hot and the ink glistening at me from the lined notebook paper, I breathed. It felt good to breathe again.
I kept at it. That passage turned into an outline, the outline to chapters. Chapters about a girl who could have her happy ending, even if I couldn’t at the time. I didn’t keep a very strict schedule; I tried to get at least 2,000 words down a week, more when I was so inclined, but I pushed through, grabbing time between classes, at coffee shops, during the summer after my shift at a local tanning bed, and, within the first month of my sophomore year of college, I had a book. A real life, nearly 200 page book. I finished the story at a time when I needed a win, with one heartbreak bleeding into another, and hope on a horizon I couldn’t yet see. But in that moment, the second I triumphantly typed “The End” on the last page of that little novel, I swelled with a pride I didn’t think existed.
Still, I wouldn’t have called myself a writer back then. For one, the book was too small to even be considered a novel by most publishers, and at the time I couldn’t think of anyway to extend the story a few hundred more pages. Another, it was a personal story, even as fiction, that I’d only allowed my dear college roommate to read – and the sweet girl sang my praises even though I knew she had to be confused by the jumble of words I’d sent her way. I couldn’t imagine it actually on shelves, as it was, even if I was lucky enough to find someone willing to put it in print. So I closed the document on my computer, filing it away into my archives until the day I could return to it with a fresh perspective.
After that I played around with a few ideas. It seemed like writing one book opened the gates for a flood of plots and characters that before never came together. I signed up for my first creative writing class since high school, I started journalling more. If I had to describe my first semester of my sophomore year I would say it was a comfortable crisis, with college and my future in disarray while my personal life was finally beginning to flourish again. I was a newly declared English and Creative Writing major, and while I knew it was what I wanted, I couldn’t help the anxiety the decision placed on me, as I thought about the careers a liberal arts major could offer me. Especially when I still couldn’t commit to one novel idea after the first.
Then, the next semester, on the night before a workshop in my prose writing class I scrambled together a short story about a boy and his friend and the struggle of fierce unpopularity. Once I received all the feedback, all the notes on what my classmates liked and what they thought could be improved, it clicked that this could be my next great idea. I worked to expand my 2,000 word short story into an 80,000 word novel, and I exceeded that exactly one year and five drafts later. With this one, I knew, not only could I send it out to be published but that people would fall in love with it.
My first round of submissions gave me three no responses and two actual “No”s. Five more and I got one “No” and four unanswered emails. With each batch of query letters and synopses I sent out I received back polite, but negative, replies, and they took their toll. I shouldn’t have been surprised; everything I’d read on publishing had told me to prepare myself for the disappointment of rejection, but still I’d hoped, and each virtual head shake from an agent or small publisher sent me into a spiral of ice cream and tears.
But here’s the thing: I had no one to blame but myself. From my first book, I’d committed to writing as a craft, but not as a career. Even with my second book, on which I spent countless hours of time and patience, I didn’t do all of the things I should have. I didn’t write it with an audience in mind; I edited it, sure, but I glossed over certain parts I thought could withstand scrutiny, giving sections a pass because I just didn’t want to deal with them myself. I let one person read it – my mom – before I sent it out, and even when I sent it out I didn’t fully research the agents and publishers as I should have, or fully consider the genre I was submitting into. I expected to just throw it into the world and watch the offers roll in.
And so here I am, a few weeks after I took my hands off the keyboard of my laptop to really consider what I’m doing to become a writer besides just … writing. Our journey as writers is a complicated one, one that involves marketing and research and actually getting opinions from people who don’t love us, and often we try to make that leap from craft to career like it’s easy. And maybe it is for some people, but for most of us it’s a lot of hard work and perseverance. We literally can’t afford to write for the simple pleasure of it because, let’s face it, we all need to put food on the table one day. And though other writers will try to tell you that the purity of writing because you love it is a beautiful thing, unless you’re a millionaire or love your day job, you won’t find the fulfillment you need from a few stolen hours writing with no rewards.
Today is Labor Day, a holiday held in honor of working people, and that’s who we are. Hard workers building our dream career. And today I pledge to work hard towards my dream of writing the books that will change the world, and document my journey here. I invite you all along for the ride, and to share your own struggles, as we all build a writer’s life for ourselves.