There was a time, not too long ago, when I couldn’t have imagined calling myself a writer—and by “writer,” I mean the kind that gets paid to do work that’s actually published in print and credited through a byline. During that time, I did write, but I only wrote either for personal reasons (in a private journal or this blog), or for the ghostwriting assignments I took as a freelance web content writer.
During that time, I was but a girl who wrote and loved writing, but nothing more than that. And I was quite happy with how things were—I loved my craft, and it loved me back.
And then the unthinkable happened.
The opportunity came for me to get published in this month’s issue of a national teen girls magazine, the glossy kind I liked to feel with my fingers, the smell of which I was addicted to, the pages of which I savored cover-to-cover, THE ONE magazine I absolutely adored as a teen and practically grew up reading. Now, how cool is it to get to see your work published in something you’ve basically worshipped for most of your adolescent years? Very cool.
Indeed, it was a dream come true for me. It was the first time I felt like a “real” writer, signing a writer’s contract, receiving a brief from my editor, having people to interview, working with a serious deadline, and getting pressured by the idea of putting out something that’s going to have my name on its byline. I mean, I’ve always felt like a “writer at heart,” but never a writer by profession. In my view, since I didn’t have a degree in Journalism or Mass Communications or Creative Writing or any of the sort, I didn’t have any right to call myself a journalist or a writer in the professional sense. Nowhere in the road map of my life did I seriously envision having to establish any sort of a professional track record as a writer.
But what happened happened, and almost instantly, I knew the game had since then changed. In the same month I was doing the assignment for the teen magazine, I got an offer to do a column for a local daily. Although I was informed that if I accepted the post, the articles I’d be doing for the column were to be done pro bono, I couldn’t be happier to be granted such a golden opportunity. From how I saw it, I didn’t really have any right to demand a professional fee for my services as a writer anyway, as I didn’t feel like I was professionally qualified for it. I was happy and contended enough with the thought that at least through the column, I’d get to have a voice, and have it get heard too.
And thus is the story of how I came to terms with calling myself a writer as how I defined it. For the first time in my life, I recognized I could possibly push past being just a writer at heart and actually get to be a professional writer, someday hopefully an accomplished author. Yeah, I thought, nodding to myself. Maybe, just maybe, I could pull this off.
But after treading just 5 meters of this road towards supposed professionalwriterdom, here I am feeling like I’ve hit a solid-hard brick wall. I am stuck.
“Why is it that the words we write for ourselves are so much better than the words we write for others?” — Sean Connery as William Forrester, Finding Forrester
After my article in the teen magazine came out, you’d think I’d have all the motivation and confidence in the world to scour greater heights and continue striving towards producing stellar-quality work. But just the opposite happened.
In the weeks that followed my national article’s publication, I had attempted to write a few other articles, but I guess I was so taken by the idea of having to maintain a certain “reputation” as a writer, that ultimately I became afraid of putting out anything else at all. Writing is one of those professions wherein you need to pay extra attention to the quality of your work every single time, as whatever is published under your name (especially if it’s published online) has the potential to either help you or hurt you. Like most other partisans of the creative life, you have a portfolio which will more or less define your mark as an artist, as a crafter of words. And the moment that thought struck me, I was paralyzed.
I don’t know if they have a word for that, but in reading and listening to the experiences of other writers and artists, I recognize I am not alone in feeling that way about producing subsequent work. Melissa Dinwiddie accurately described it in her article What Nobody Ever Told You About Following Your Passion:
“Positive feedback to my early work, rather than motivating me to create more, paralyzed me in a resistance headlock. I wanted to be prolifically creating, but I felt so much pressure to perform up to my ‘potential’ that I completely choked.”
“And it’s exceedingly likely that anything I write from this point forward is going to be judged by the world as the work that came after the freakish success of my last book…It’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me. So Jesus, what a thought! That’s the kind of thought that could lead a person to start drinking gin at nine o’clock in the morning, and I don’t want to go there. I would prefer to keep doing this work that I love.”
Now, I am nowhere near the success of Elizabeth Gilbert as a professional writer (it makes me queasy even seeing the pronoun “I” in the same sentence as her name), nor do I envision myself to be so in the next couple of decades of my life. But I do get what she means with feeling that “my greatest success is behind me” and how it builds this sort of anxiety that puts a stopper to the flow of words I would’ve let myself write had I still been that girl who simply loved to write and wasn’t bothered by any thought of having to take care of a reputation or a portfolio as a “budding professional writer.” And I very much feel what she said about preferring “to keep doing this work that I love.”
Now I find myself in the middle of a room where half-finished articles are strewn all across my writing desk and a folder named “unfinished” has recently been created in my computer drive. To say that I’ve been suffering from writer’s block seems to me a complete understatement to describe my current predicament.
And it occurs to me that probably, the only way I’ll ever get to write like I have before, and the only way I’ll get to finish this friggin’ article and post it on my blog once and for all, is for me to lift that label I have allowed myself to bear the pressure of for one day too many. I need to stop thinking of myself as a “writer.”
Blogger Suzie81, in her recent Freshly Pressed post Professional or Hobbyist? asked author Caitlin Kelly of the Broadside Blog what she considered to be the right time for someone to start calling themselves a writer. She quoted Kelly of responding,
“…someone who is soi-disant ‘a writer’ is someone I would need to show me their commercially accepted and published work — and a consistent sales record in the thousands — to qualify.”
This was exactly what I needed to read so I could guiltlessly free myself from the label “writer.” I had one paid-for, nationally-circulated published piece, yes, but nothing more than that. No “consistent sales record in the thousands.” That definition officially disqualified me from being called a writer in the professional sense, but rather than driving me to the depths of disappointment, it granted me more freedom to become more myself again, instead of trying so hard to reach an idealized image to the point of being afraid to make mistakes.
“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” — Margaret Atwood
I understand that the paralyzing anxiety and fear I felt are part and parcel of daring to lead a creative life. Henri Matisse was really on to something when he said, “Creativity takes courage.” And what is writing but one of the most influential, genuine forms of creativity? It is the creation of, in Neil Gaiman’s words, “something that wasn’t there before.” It has the potential to bring great joy to the creator, but also a great deal of frustration and struggle when he cannot quite get over an obstacle that keeps deterring him from satisfactorily doing the work he feels called to doing.
So now I am making the decision to unbecome a writer, at least for now when I am still trying to find my feet and only beginning to discover what I can do. The fear of making mistakes and of tainting a portfolio with not-up-to-standard work has no place in this craft. I guess it’s safe to say that the best writers did not become so by worrying about their reputation or image or professional track record all the time. They simply wrote, about what they knew to be true, what they would like the world to know, what they think should matter.
I am going back to being the girl who wrote and loved writing, and didn’t bother about maintaining a professional portfolio, or about writing to meet other people’s expectations. As J.D. Salinger wrote, “An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.” I will continue honing my craft out of love and respect for it, and I shall continue to write because I want to write, I need to write, and it’s the only way I know how to make sense of the world, to get through pain, and to leave a mark that will still be here long after I am gone.
I am unbecoming a writer by profession. But please graciously welcome me back, as a writer at heart.