Five weeks ago, I started taking myself seriously as a writer. I mean, not only did I start honoring, rather than trying to hide (from God and myself) or apologizing for, the one thing I’ve wanted since June of 1990 (I was born in the winter of ’86), but I took these terrifying concrete steps, like seeking mentoring and professional feedback also. This One Thing I’ve Always Wanted is to be a published writer creating things of significance. But I felt both that I was never good enough to do it and also, that it wouldn’t matter if I was. The world was falling to bits around me and I had the moral obligation (and the desire to actually continue living in it) to do something about it. Thus a gnashing internal struggle that has driven me nearly over the edge multiple times over the last quarter century. For those who don’t me well, it’s hard to convey how deep and injurious this war has been and so it will sound trite to say that it’s Finally Over.
Which, of course, makes room for a new battle. How the heck do I do what I was always meant to do anyway? As it turns out, it’s just as hard to be a writer as to pretend not to be one. And one thing that doesn’t help is external doubt, mitigation, hurtful questions…all things that well-meaning people who I believe care about me (which is why this ends up being so painful) have been doing. “Maybe,” more than one of my friends have said recently, “your writing is just for you.” “Why do you want to get published anyway?” I get asked ad nauseum. “Isn’t it enough if your words touch just ONE person’s soul?”
Guys, you’re not listening. In the first place, writing “just for me” is called journaling, which I also do but it’s not what I’m talking about here. And all you’re doing when you say that is both demonstrating that you don’t understand and that you kind of don’t want to. Second, asking “why do you want to get published?” is like asking me why I have brown hair. It just is, and has been, also since I was four. In other words, I didn’t choose this; it chose me. Third, I have enough “writing is selfish” demons I’ve been staring down since the first summer of the ’90s; I don’t need any more insinuations to that effect.
Why is it that we generally encourage people to dream big, to never give up, to shoot for the stars, etc., but when it comes down to someone actually doing it, the cheerleading stops and the doubts and attempts to downplay come in? I get that aiming (really, really) high is scary and you want to protect your friends but that’s exactly why you should be turning UP your support. Things like writing well – which is very, very hard and consists 99% of failure – are hard enough to do on your own, let alone without encouragement and support. “Maybe your writing is just for you” is not support. Trying to redefine my calling as something other than “Writer” because you believe “Writer” is proving too stressful for me is not encouragement. Asking why I want to be published, even if it truly does come out of curiosity, is not helpful (to me).
But simply complaining about something without offering suggestions for improvement annoys me so here are a few:
1) Quote some numbers at me. Really. I, too, was surprised by how much this helped when a friend did this a few weeks ago. Sure, it’s terribly discouraging to learn that J.K. Rowling got rejected 14 times for her Harry Potter series; it’s dizzingly depressing to know that C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series got rejected hundreds of times. It’s no wonder that, as it’s commonly said, “depression is the writer’s disease.” But all of this means that perseverance actually can pay off, and that rejection – even a boatload of it – doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad writer. It also means that the writers in your life really, really need external buoyancy sometimes; that much rejection is harrowing to navigate for the soul sensitive enough to be able write well. For my part, there may be a balance between having a thick enough skin to weather the rejection and having a thin enough one to actually write stuff people want to read, but I have not found it yet.
2) Instead of asking why I want this damn difficult thing, ask how you can help me. I know that a cursory survey of human nature might lead you to believe that people don’t tend to want to do stuff that’s hard, and it’s true that we don’t really feel like doing most things in life that require sustained, difficult work, attention, failing and re-doing. But questions like “why do you want to get published?” and “isn’t one person enough for you?” sort of hint that I should be other than I am. Accept me for who I am and what I am – the me I didn’t get a say in and is not up for debate – and ask your questions from THAT place.
3) Most importantly, ask to read my stuff. The stuff I write that *I* like, the stuff I write to keep myself alive. I won’t always say yes, but, as we see in number one above, perseverance can pay off. One of the fastest and deepest ways to hurt a writer is to make them ask you to read what they’re working on. Another quick way to hurt a writer is to ask to read their stuff and then make them follow up with you. So ask to read my stuff (and ask again if I say no or “after I’m done making it presentable to another living person;” which is code for “no and I suck so badly at this that my time would be better spent scrubbing sidewalks with a toothbrush”) and then come find me to tell me what you think when you’re done. You’re not obligated to like it, but no writing is complete until it has been read. The couple people who have told me, after reading some of my work recently, that they think I have a shot at my dream (which they knew the details of) blessed me more than food did my body that day. After all, we do not live on bread alone.