If You Want To Be A Writer, This Is For You


You’ve known it for years.

When you were 4, story time was your favorite activity, and you’d always ask your parents for more books, more words, less pictures, more fairytale. You wanted the meat of it, you wanted the words to ignite your imagination. When you learned to write, you began writing your own stories, your letters a stick-scrawl that didn’t pay attention to the lines on the page, but that didn’t matter to you. You were the only child who didn’t groan during poetry units in class and the one who bought the most books in the book sale. You’ve owned more journals than you can count, and the blank pages in the back of your favorite books are a jumble of your own thoughts. One day, you tell yourself, they’ll be worth millions, for here lies your earliest work.

Your parents will be worried about you, and they’ll wonder how you’ll make a living. It’s hard, they’ve heard. Your family will wonder what an English major does– in a conservatory, in a workshop, in an intensive. Why do you need theory courses? Why do you even study writing? Don’t you just write if you want to write? You’ll dream of your first book, your first published piece in a copy of the New Yorker or the Atlantic carried around in your bag like a holy text. You want to be a writer. You want to see your name in print.

But first, do anything other than writing.

Not because it will shut your parents up temporarily, though it will. They’ll be assuaged by the fact that you tried. Not because you should give up the pipe dream of writing, because you never should. (And even if anyone were to tell you otherwise, you wouldn’t listen to them. Writing is who you are.) But just try something else first, for one reason.

Because you’ll end up writing anyway.

You shouldn’t try to get fired or to be a terror in your office. Don’t blow off all of your other responsibilities to finish the Next Great American Trilogy. Do your job well. Who knows? You may even like it. Because being a writer means being able to be two different things, two different people, your voice and your characters simultaneously. And you can tap into this here, when you’re doing another job. But more than that, you will end up writing anyway, no matter what it is that you’re doing.

You could never do anything else, not really. You could never not be a writer. Trying to take on another job doesn’t change that part of who you are. You will end up being a writer anyway, no matter what it is that you do. Even if your job title isn’t “staff writer,” you will be writing on the scraps of printer paper you end up recycling at your receptionist job in your free time. (There will be free time.) You’ll write the best copy imaginable for clients at a PR firm. The 140-character constraints of a tweet will be your new haiku format. You’ll edit other people’s proposals, your own eye for words becoming stronger with every one you weed out from someone else’s work. You will become a master observer, and you’ll notice the quirks and the habits and the stories of the customers you meet at your job at the coffee shop or at the restaurant or at the shopping mall. These people will never know it, but they’ll live forever in the pages you write and the stories you dream up.

Holding tight to the legend of J.K. Rowling writing on napkins and to Bukowski in his post office uniform, go to your job. It might just turn out that you love it, and that writing is the tool you use to really do something extraordinary. It’s always possible. Don’t hold yourself down to one option when the world is nothing but endless possibility. (You might also be absolutely unemployable in every other aspect, but you’ll never know for sure until you try the alternative just to confirm your beliefs.)

Because you will go home at night and you will write. You will write on the subway, on your phone, on more copies of more battered old books and in journals and on blogs. You will write letters to your family back home, and you’ll send in a few timid pieces to a few small publications at first. And then maybe a few more, to bigger titles. But most of all, you will be writing for yourself. As you should be. As you did in the very beginning. Because this — this place where you’re writing from passion and drive and the sheer need to write — is where you’ll find your voice and you’ll grow the most. The proposals and the plans and the drafts and the client emails and the memos will all give you skills you need to have as a writer. But they will also make you hungrier for your goal, whatever it is.

It’s hard to see other people with the title you’re chasing after, the one you’ve always fantasized about. Even people who don’t want to be writers still read the news and see people mentioned with their dream job. We all have our goals, and none are more or less special than the other. They just are, and they’re all valid.

And so you will still try to work for that magazine, and you will spend late nights googling how to submit a manuscript to an agent, and you will apply to every job that even so much as has reporting or blogging or (fingers crossed) writing skills listed. And you should. Because one day, you will land that job, and you won’t take it for granted. And you will do the best job physically, humanly possible. But you should know that job doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t mean you’ve arrived.

You were always here. Really.

You’ve been a writer all along.

And not because you get paid to do it. Not everyone can be paid to do everything, though it would be great if that were so. But you’d write even if money wasn’t an issue. You know that deep down, don’t you? Money makes things complicated. It’s necessary, because we all need to eat and sleep and live, but it complicates matters. Write what you know, what you love, and not what you think other people want to hear. They’ll never pay you for thinking they’re predictable. And you aren’t not a writer because you sold out. Because you didn’t. Most writers have a past riddled with odd jobs to stay afloat. It’s part of our masochism, what we do, our endless struggle, our endless research, our endless reach for that green light we read about once upon a time back in school when we were the only kids who liked English class.

Once upon a time, you wanted to be a writer. But it turns out, you were, are, and will be a writer. No matter what the economy looks like, or how many bylines you have stacked up. You are a writer now.