I hate it when “real” writers do this.
A few weeks ago, I met a fellow writer at a party.
He told me a story that made me so mad I almost threw Chex Mix at him.
Here’s how the scene went down:
I stood in a swanky apartment full of my boyfriend’s parents’ friends, chatting to strangers and marveling at the giant seahorse statue in the corner.
“You’ve GOT to talk to Roger,” someone said. “He’s a writer, too!”
Rodger found me first. I didn’t see him because I was too busy shoveling fiesta-flavored Chex Mix onto my plate.
When I turned around, a short man with round glasses and a pointed beard stood there. He glanced at my snack pile, then stuck out his hand. “I hear you’re a writer,” he said.
“Roger,” I guessed.
He nodded. “What kind of writing do you do?”
“A variety of things,” I said. “I write true stories and tell them on stage. I went to a performing arts high school for creative writing, but I love non-fiction the most. I keep an arts column in the local newspaper, too, But most of the time I work with online entrepreneurs. I help them write website copy, tell their stories, that sort of thing.”
“Oh.” Roger looked crestfallen. “We’re in totally different fields then.”
“Quite possibly. What do you do?”
“Fiction. Short stories. I publish in literary journals.” He looked at me. “It’s incredibly competitive.”
No kidding. He was preaching to the choir on that one.
I’ve been on both sides of the submissions desk, and in a world where everybody’s trying to mine gold from depths of their souls, odds of publication are approximately 900-to-1. (The odds of fame and viable income are even smaller.)
Roger asked if I’d gotten my MFA in Creative Writing. I told him no.
“Well thank GOD,” Roger said. “I got my Master’s in English Literature—that’s a completely different thing, you know—and MFA programs are just for people who don’t have the self-discipline to do it on their own.”
At that point, I began to get annoyed. Like listen, Roger, writing is a labor of love. People spend their entire lives trying to become the best they can be, and they should use any resources they damn well please to get there.
But he wasn’t finished.
Apparently Roger thought I was legit. So now I was going to hear what he REALLY thought about people trying to break into our insider’s club.
“I used to teach writing at the college level,” Roger said. “Not creative writing, mind you, but English composition. One year I had an engineering student who was getting straight As in all of her classes. She wrote an essay, and it was okay. It wasn’t great. So I gave her a C. And she came to me afterward, crying and asking how I could possibly give her such a low grade when she’d worked so hard on it.
“So I told her, listen, not everyone can be a great writer. Most people can’t be great writers. You’re good. But you’re not great, and you probably never will be. You’re not creative or clever. It’s just not your strength.
“She got so mad at me. We had one essay left that year, and she said she’d show me. That I’d see how creative and clever she could be next time.”
Roger flashed me a look that said, Can you believe the nerve of these people?
“Her last essay was only slightly better than the first. Still uninspired. I gave her a B minus, and she was so upset. But it’s like I told her. Not everyone is cut out to be a real writer.”
There it was.
That stupid, stupid lie.
Not everyone is cut out to be a real writer.
WHAT? Says WHO?
Who decided that “real writer” status can only be doled out by snobs at cocktail parties?
THIS is the type of self-serving logic that makes aspiring artists shrink their creativity, ditch their soul, and cower under blankets of self-doubt forever.
Can you imagine this poor engineering girl? For the rest of her life, every time she sits down with a pen or opens her mouth to pour out her truth, she’s going to have a stupid voice in her head saying, You’re not creative. You’re not clever. You’re not good enough.
He could have just as easily told her, This doesn’t meet my standards for XYZ reasons. You need more practice (which is understandable if you’ve spent most of your life memorizing the infinite architecture of math and/or science). To become truly great, you’ve got to dedicate yourself to this. You’ve got to feel the fire and live in the heat. Get obsessive, practice your ass off, and you CAN become amazing.
Then, at least, she would have had a choice.
But nooooo. Not this guy.
I fumed at Roger. I grabbed a fistful of Chex Mix.
But this wasn’t my party, and these weren’t my friends. Roger, in truth, wasn’t a bad person. We just disagreed about a fundamental idea. That underpins almost everything I believe to be true about life.
So I walked away, chewing angrily.
Want to know how to become a “real” writer?
(It’s actually pretty simple.)
And for the rest of your life, you work hard at getting better.
What that looks like day to day has nothing to do with degrees. It might mean you:
- Sculpt a salary out of words.
- Ask for input on your latest blog post so you can polish before sending it out.
- Scribble poetry while your baby is sleeping.
- Rack up more awards than Taylor Swift at the Grammys.
- Use a thesaurus to find the RIGHT word, the one that keeps eluding you.
- Read your email out loud and fuss until it sounds right.
- Always write shitty first drafts.
- Weigh group feedback with grace and an open heart.
- Treat each word like a tiny object of beauty.
- Tell truths that make you feel naked among strangers.
In short, you become a “real” writer when you try harder than necessary, care more than you should, and commit to making art with words.
Yes, Roger, everyone can do it.
But not everybody will.
In case this wasn’t clear, my darling:
There is no real insider’s club for writers.
We’re all on the same spectrum, putting pen to paper, taking risks and working our asses off. Sometimes we get public accolades for it. Most of the time we don’t.
So for the love of light and kittens and fiesta-flavored Chex Mix…
Don’t let ANYBODY make you believe you aren’t creative or clever enough to share your words with the world.