Why you are not an aspiring writer

I once saw a cartoon, and I've been trying in vain to find it ever since: two prosperous, suave-looking people are at a cocktail party, drinks in hand, and one says to the other, "I hesitate to call myself a writer, because I've never actually written anything."

I continue to find that cartoon hilarious because of all the reasons to hesitate to call yourself a writer, that's the only one people never use, and yet it's the only valid reason at all.

I usually tell my beginner karate students in their very first class, "No, you're not 'training to be a martial artist'. You are a martial artist. You're training to be a better martial artist." Same with my fencing students. "You're here. In fencing class. Thus you're fencers, starting right this very moment." Likewise, I say to you: do you write? Then you are a writer.

You might not yet be a good writer, or a published writer, or a famous writer, or (*snert*) a wealthy writer. You may never be any of those things. But you are a writer, and you can keep becoming a better writer. Here are some ways you might want to try as part of the process of doing that.

Treat yourself like a writer. Assume you already are one. When faced with an opportunity or a dilemma, ask yourself: What Would Writers Do? Then do that. I tell beginning karate students, "The only real way to get to black belt is to act like you already are one. Demand of yourself the kind of excellence a black belt would expect of themselves. For years you'll probably fall short in every way. But you'll get a lot closer than you would if you spent those years making whiny excuses about why you're not looking like a black belt yet, why you can't be expected to perform at that level." Same goes for writing. Challenge yourself. Risk looking stupid. Write 'til it hurts. Then write a bit more. Act writerly: observe, think, question, critique. Hang out with other writers. Keep your mouth shut and learn from them (that doesn't mean they're always right, but realizing that is also learning, no?).

Finish things. All writers write. Good writers finish. Yes, yes, I know, we all have notebooks and laptops full of half-finished monstrosities. Thing is, if you're waiting for your work to match the beautiful moment of inspiration you had when you started, tough luck, pal. We are a flawed and fallen race, and nothing — nothing — we write is ever going to live up to that first brilliant flash of inspiration. Accepting that you will never be entirely satisfied, but that you have to finish anyway, is crucial to becoming better. Shame can't matter. Dread can't matter. Feel them, sure — we all do. But let them, in the words of Herbert's Litany Against Fear (from Dune), pass over you and through you. Despite how it can feel at the time, they're not fatal. But they can kill your writing if you let them.

Know that for the writer, nothing is wasted. The time you must spend stocking shelves at the supermarket, or answering phones, or looking after your sister's kids, or visiting your father-in-law in the nursing home — all of those are valuable for their own sake and they feed you as a writer. One of the pieces of mine I'm proudest of, the libretto to a short opera that ended up being highly meaningful to at least a few people, including one of the performers, had its genesis in the summer I spent packing books in a warehouse. It's not our job to live in a garret and think lofty and transcendent things. It's our job to wade into life in all its chaotic, grimy, slimy, glorious manifestations (including our own life crises), to make connections, to find and express meaning. The garret is deeply attractive, sure (at least it is to me, and occasionally I've been privileged to abide there for short times). But you will be a better writer if you stop wasting time yearning for it. Your life is what it is. You are the writer you are. And everything you have ever done and are doing now and will ever do feeds into that.

So I urge you: don't hesitate to call yourself a writer. And for God's sake, don't wait to call yourself a writer. Do you write? Well, then.


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