How (Not) To Become A Writer

How to summon forth the Secret Author Person within you.

By Laura Zigman
Sunday, September 3, 2006
The Washington Post
The Writing Life

People often ask writers how they became writers. It is a difficult question to answer because when you actually start to explain how you got to where you are, the person who asked you is already bored. This is because what they really want to know is how they can become a writer; how they can avoid your mistakes and pitfalls and go straight to the glamorous, exciting, fulfilling life that they assume you lead.

And who can blame them? After all, when you ask someone about their vacation, you don’t actually want to see their slide show or their iMovie or read their blog or listen to their podcast or sign up on their Web site to receive their newsletter; you don’t actually want to see their coffee-stained AAA maps with excruciatingly dull notations and corrections and opinions scrawled in the margins — No bridge here; Construction there; Rest-stops on this stretch have no McDonalds, only Big Boys, the poor-man’s Denny’s — yuck! People who want to become writers just want the facts. So here they are, as I know them, in as few words and with as little personal commentary as possible:

The first thing you should do when you decide you want to be a writer is to stop yourself from telling anyone you want to be a writer (stick a sock in your mouth if you have to). As a rule, most parents and guidance counselors (dream-killers) will try to dissuade you from following this career path (to nowhere). The root of their lack of support (extreme negativity) is that it’s a painfully unwise (foolish) ambition to have since very few writers earn a living from writing. You will be told:

· to be practical (“Why not try technical writing or corporate communications writing or computer software manual-writing?”)

· to get your head out of the clouds (“And how exactly will poetry pay the bills? The last time I checked, iambic pentameter was not an accepted currency.”)

· to realize that your notion of wanting a career you love can be disproved linguistically (“If work was supposed to be fun it would be called ‘fun,’ not ‘work.’ “)

Since you are young enough to still believe in yourself (instead of only in people who try to talk you out of believing in yourself), you will bring the subject up again (repeatedly, in an oddly masochistic “Groundhog Day” kind of way). You will then be lectured on:

· the value of a dollar (“You can’t just write more money.”)

· what it was like to be in the army (even if that army never actually went anywhere or did anything)

· what it was like growing up during the Depression (depressing).

To top it all off, you will be labeled a dreamer (and the only thing worse than being a dreamer is being a dreamer who is foolish enough to actually pursue a dream).

If you are like most people (me), before you know it, you will agree wholeheartedly with your naysayers. “What was I thinking?” you will say to yourself every time the urge to write surfaces like an unruly weed, which you and everyone else keep trying to beat to death. “What could I possibly have to say that hasn’t already been said by people a thousand times smarter than I will ever be?” Psychologists refer to this as the Stockholm Syndrome — when captives begin to share the views of their captors. You will so fully internalize their message and adopt it as your own that you will eventually forget it wasn’t your opinion to begin with.

You will now enter a long (seemingly placid but emotionally turbulent) period of denial that can sometimes last years (or decades). You will lie. “Who me? Be a writer? And put up with all that rejection? Are you kidding?” You will obfuscate. “Who would want to be a writer? Can you imagine being someone who wanted to be a writer?” When pressed, you will even philosophize: “If a writer writes something that never gets published and is thus never read, is a writer still a writer?”

In order to convince yourself and others that you have “moved on” (accepted defeat without even trying), you will learn to hide in plain sight: You will get a normal job, one with an actual office and an actual desk (engaging in “freelance work” from your apartment or working “odd jobs” with “odd hours” are dead giveaways of your true intentions and unconscious desires). In exchange for your 40 (or 50 or 60) hours a week of work (indentured servitude), you’ll receive a respectable paycheck (let’s be frank: not much more than you made waitressing in high school at the International House of Pancakes or working the drive-thru at Burger King) and medical benefits (to pay for psychotherapy, twice a week, to deal with the stress of all your repression). Most important, your job will provide you with some financial security and emotional stability (not to mention the perfect opportunity for people watching, eavesdropping, Internet research and working on something — Fiction? Nonfiction? Comedy? Tragedy? — even if you don’t yet know what that something is).

In addition to the macro-lie (yourself as Career Drone), you’ll see that you need to make up lots of little lies to protect your true identity (Secret Writer Person). You’ll have to appear ambitious and deserving of promotions (show up before noon); pretend to embrace any and all career-enhancing business trips and client interactions (even though you see any time away from your true calling as a soul-deadening, blood-sucking diversion); and continue to dress the part (never complaining about how dumb it is that you have to spend all your money on work clothes when you could be home writing your novel in your pajamas).

And then one day, out of the blue, just when you think you’re finally lost in the jungle, you will see it. You will look at all the papers and files and meaningless detritus on your desk, you will watch all your wonderfully idiosyncratic co-workers racing busily around the office, talking of Michelangelo, and you will stop whatever it is you are doing. The world you’ve tried so hard to join will suddenly cease to exist, and you will finally see that life without your dream is a wasteland; that you must at least try to do the thing you really want to do even if, in the end, you do not succeed at it. You will be tempted to put the better-to-have-loved-and-lost rule in parentheses, like everything else in your life that you’ve sidelined and tried to ignore up until now, but you will resist and settle for multiple hyphens instead. It is a step. You are about to head into the great unknown, and you will be tempted to throw away the map to your lost world in triumph, but don’t — you will need something to write on .

21 thoughts on “How (Not) To Become A Writer

  1. Jodi says:

    Oh. My. Goodness. I want you for my best friend. Seriously! I have tears in my eyes and must thank you for putting these words on paper (o.k. on computer screen) for me to find when I needed them most. My Stockholm’s Syndrome took root almost two decades ago, and I’m only now trying to crawl out of my self-imposed writing exile. In the process, I’m writing tons of barely readable drivel and blogging my heart out (since I no longer have health benefits to pay for therapy). You’ve inspired me to go crank out a few more words of my as yet unpublished romance (tragedy? chick-lit? dramedy? farce?) and hope the result is slightly less terrible than yesterday. Much love from Alabama!

    • Laura Zigman says:

      Wow, Jodi, what a wonderful comment to get. I’m so happy that the piece made you feel like you’re not the only one out there trying to find your way. Keep blogging and keep writing and keep in touch! xo

  2. red-handed says:

    Well. I still have ‘Don’t talk about it, people don’t want to hear it’ in my day-timer, and I write everyday. People *will* ask, every now and then, and it feels like “How’s that extra head coming along?” And I say “Fine. Just fine.”

  3. Kris says:

    And I thought I was so unique.

    Thanks for this.

  4. [...] Story|Books|Writing|BRAG + RANT = BRANT|How (Not) To Become A Writer|Laura's Original [...]

  5. Wendy says:

    “You will now enter a long (seemingly placid but emotionally turbulent) period of denial that can sometimes last years (or decades).”

    Decades, yes. As a teenager, I began the dream of myself as a writer. That dream was squelched a few years later by the reality of responsibility and impending starvation.

    Now, over 25 years later, when I am asked what I do, I still hesitate, I want to say “I am a copywriter” or “I do research for businesses” just so I won’t get the questioning which surely will bruise my ego.

    However, over the years I have learned to be true to myself so when asked what I do now I say: “I am a writer. What do I write? Anything I get paid for.” That usually hushes the naysayers. Plus it leaves them wondering if I write porn, which is always a plus.

  6. [...] Zigman’s How (Not) to Become a Writer.  Rings so [...]

  7. Christine says:

    I wrote a book, my first, and I have no idea how to get it edited…or to another human being to read, other than my husband. I also self-published this book; making it easier for my husband to read. Psychologically I think self-publishing made me feel better about seeing my work in book form. “Look I wrote a book and here it is.” One day I could show my grandchildren said book!

    Do writers send an entire manuscript to a publishing house? Or do they send a small piece of the book so that the publishing house can get a flavor of the material before they send the rejection letter? Just wondering…this is all so foreign to me.

    Laura, any insight you could give would be very much appreciated. Many thanks!

  8. Sondra Sneed says:

    Laura,
    Do you ever have a day when you are maneuvered to just the right message? Whether it’s a song, a book title, a youtube video? That happened just now, on your blog, on this page, at 9:35 pm, on my couch in front of a muted television.

    What an inspiring piece of writing.

    I am walking out the door of my previous life, carrying my family with me, secretly laying the cobblestones I will be taking them down on my way to authorship. I randomly chose to follow you on twitter because you were being followed by others I randomly decided to follow. On this new path however, I am finding there is less randomness than appears.

    Goodnight my sweet Laura. Something of yours will be on my nightstand soon. What of yours should I read first?

  9. Kim Derby says:

    my life up til now, written by you. wow. thanks for the reminder. Thank. You.

  10. Sian Young says:

    I loved this!! It was a great read!! Made me laugh a few times, luckily i never hadany of those issues, I started writing when i was young, in Elementary School, and i kept writing for years, until finally i started my OWN book.
    Although it did take me a while to decide to BE a Writer, rather i just was one.
    I tried, psychology, teaching, photography, until i realized the only thing i thought about day and night was writing, and i decided to get my stories typed, edited and sent out!!
    It was easier for me, as mymom’s a writer too! So, we encourage each other..(Tho i keep telling her i should get paid as im her editor! XD!!)

  11. Shawndra Russells says:

    I am a “I turned thirty and couldn’t believe I hadn’t taken a chance on writing” writer–quit my full-time, safe (aka soul-sucking) job a few months ago and now have to placate naysayers that I’m only “giving myself one year” and if I don’t succeed I’ll get a “real” job again (yeah, right). Cheers!

  12. Lori says:

    I found this link through your Xtranormal interview. Thanks so much for writing this. You have possibly changed my life. There will be a ‘thank you’ to you in my book.

  13. chesca silva says:

    man you move around a lot Laura.
    Glad to have found you in your third or is it fourth home….
    is it safe to bookmark this now?

  14. Sweet-Ma^_~ says:

    I ran across your article by accident working on a research paper. You added a new perspective to my research. People still following their dreams secretly. I can really relate in a different way to this. I resigned myself early on in life to realize my written word is grade school level to say the least. So I started trying to write comic books. Equally there are difficulties in finding a solid ground to start and not rushing the story. But yes I frequently came across those who thought my career choice to be a pipe dream.

    While published books are hard comic books are just a brutal and I can say every rejection letter has been more inspiration to keep trying than give up. Though I’m going to school for an entirely different trade I don’t think that dreams are something you give up on.

    Fight the power and keep trying everyone!

  15. So inspiring. THANK YOU.

  16. If anything, I would recommend quitting lengthy attempts at becoming a published writer. Sure, if you enjoy writing for the sake of it, for yourself, for your family and so on, go ahead. Memoirs, feats, the first to cross the Sahara, etc., truly great! But if you seek recognition and an income (no matter how meagre) while already having spent years on trying to get there, it’s high time to draw a line and reconsider: how many hours, weeks, months have you spent dreaming something up? What did your average daily income derived from writing come to? What else have you foregone during that time? What other activities (e.g., being on the waves) have you invested much time in? Was it productive? Financially, personally? What could you have done more suitably (suitable to your real self) and profitably (as in making a living)? Have you checked out all possibilities, your real talent or even just the things you are actually quite good at, your pluses? Have you been getting behind them? Or are you letting time get the better of you while facing diminishing opportunities? If you have a creative streak, would it not allow you to see opportunities for which you might be well suited, including getting more education & training? No, you don’t need to join the Joneses, not at all, you don’t need to embark on the rat race either, aiming for riches, become the limousine driven fool, none of any of those. Be yourself! Stand for yourself, follow no one. But to do so you need to get a handle on reality and yourself; look at yourself from a distance: are you happy with what you see? If so, go on, if not, get cracking, straighten up, run, walk, grow vegetables and contemplate. Look, there is a veritable ocean of would-be writers, camouflaged as bloggers and their fans clogging the fibre optics. Does anyone care? They come, age and go. Get yourself off that wagon, value your time, do YOUR thing, not someone else’s. I’ll be damned if I am wrong. Best wishes, Nick

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