Writer Jeff Goins caught some flack recently for something he talked about on a video on his site. He said that for anyone to be a writer they simply had to call themselves one.
People criticized him for over-simplifying it, because there is a lot that goes into being a writer than merely calling yourself one. Jeff agreed but asserted that for those who were just starting out, those who are trying to start, who need to make that first baby step, they need to call themselves a writer.
Goins talks about this a lot with his own writer origin story. For a long time he told himself “someday”, someday he would be a writer. It was always in the back of his mind. Then one day when he was talking to a friend and hemming and hawing over the idea, his friend said, “Jeff you are a writer, you just need to write.” For Goins it was a matter of taking ownership, for admitting it to himself, for not hiding it from it, that helped him take those vital first steps. He needed to give himself permission to be a writer.
Sounds simple enough. For a long time I thought I already had permission. I’ve been writing since I was twelve, and the “writer” label stuck to me like flypaper. I set my sights on it and dreamed of doing it for a living. But I never quite arrived. I was always falling short of something, falling short of finishing stories or submitting them for publication or posting consistently on my blog.
I chalked it to the usual things that writers complain about, not enough time or being too busy or finding the right audience, which are all part of it. But I was missing a vital piece.
I hadn’t really given myself permission to write.
I thought I did. I thought I wanted it. I thought I was doing the whole writing thing, but the reason I hadn’t arrived was because some part of me wasn’t all in.
I told friends and family that I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t own this fact. Owning it means that you don’t care what others think, that it belongs to you now matter what other people’s judgments are.
And I was afraid of their judgments. Fiction writing is all fine and dandy, but you can’t pay the rent with it, not without working your ass off and paying the rent. So while I worked at being a fiction writer, I had to work at jobs that paid the rent, jobs that existed in the real world and came with pay checks and that existed in a building of some sort and not just in the phantasmagoria of my mind.
When people asked me what I wanted to do for work, I told them other things that sounded reasonable, while secretly I told them I wanted to be a fiction writer. I was ashamed to admit that to people, because I always thought there was something wrong with wanting to make a living off of writing fiction. In my mind it seemed too lofty a goal, unrealistic, naive, absurd. I may as well have told people I wanted to breed DoDo birds for a living. So I kept it buried.
For a long time there was a part of me that wasn’t all in. I was afraid to own it, because I had this thought that I wasn’t a “real” writer.
Real writers weren’t just published but they had reach. Real writers got paid for their work. Real writers had a fan base and did interviews. Real writers had MFA’s. I had none of these, so I wasn’t a “real” writer.
Instead of thinking of myself as a “real” writer, I thought of myself as an “aspiring” writer, something that would happen to me in an indistinct future as a result of circumstances that would mysteriously “happen” and were beyond my control. That’s what I thought.
So I didn’t see myself as a real writer, and the result was that I wasn’t operating at the level of a real writer. I was operating at a level of someone who aspires to do it, which if you want to know what that looks like is a lot more dreaming and not so much doing.
As long as I called myself an “aspiring” writer, that’s all that I ever was. By not taking ownership of it and all that being a “real” writer entailed, I wasn’t a “real” writer. It wasn’t an MFA or a list of published works or a paycheck that made me a real writer. Owning it was all I had to do to become a real writer.
By not taking ownership, I never pushed myself to do the things that would make me a real writer, didn’t push myself to write on family vacations, didn’t take responsibility for finishing stories, didn’t share my work with other people.
All these things I didn’t do and I only stunted my own growth.
Lately my partner and I have been talking a lot about our futures, our futures of work and family and what we want it to look like, because for us it’s all interconnected. He asked me what I really wanted to do, and because we are honest with each other, I could no longer keep it hidden. When I said it out loud, I owned it once and for all.
So how do you become a “real” writer? Own it.
Calling yourself a writer is by no means the end. It is only the beginning. But if you’re someone who’s waiting to “arrive” or “make it”, then it’s the beginning you’ve been looking for.
So don’t be humble or coy. Stop saying that you write on the side. Stop talking about writing like it’s going to happen in the future. Don’t apologize for it or pile it on with other things that pay the rent (even though we all like the things that pay the rent). Tell one person close to you what you really are. Order some business cards with “Writer” on them. Announce it on your blog. And own it.