On Writing for a Living (or How I Didn’t Become a Writer)

Once upon a time, I was a girl who dreamed of becoming a writer—that is, for the purposes of this post, one I will define as someone who does writing as a fulltime profession, or at least has published a book.

Since the time I was about 10 y.o., I had been an active campus journalist. I was editor-in-chief of our school publication in both my elementary and high school years. I competed in numerous essay-writing and journalism contests, and in the course of it have received several writing awards. My proudest accomplishment was placing second in the feature-writing category of the country’s premier competition for student journalists, the National Schools Press Conference (NSPC).

To my young mind, all that was a pretty big deal. See, when you’re a child tossed in a sea of innumerable other faces in the arena called school, you try to figure out what makes you different. You try to figure out who you are. You cling to activities and subjects you either find enjoyable or have some degree of success at, as a sort of reassurance that this life thing ain’t so bad and that you don’t totally suck as a person. And when you find something that you enjoy doing AND at the same time actually do well in, it feels like you hit the jackpot. Writing was that something for me. I felt so lucky to have found something I not only enjoyed doing with a passion, but apparently was also good at. It felt to me like I had found my path. I was going to be a writer.

Interviewers ask famous writers why they write, and it was (if I remember correctly) the poet John Ashbery who answered, ‘Because I want to.’ Flannery O’Connor answered, ‘Because I’m good at it,’ and when the occasional interviewer asks me, I quote them both. Then I add that other than writing, I am completely unemployable. But really, secretly, when I’m not being smart-alecky, it’s because I want to and I’m good at it.” ~ Anne Lamott

But sometime around my junior year in high school, when people started to ask what I intended to do with my life, the reactions I received upon telling people I planned to become a writer weren’t exactly encouraging. In fact, many were horrified. “But writers starve!” they all said. And by ‘they,’ I mean the adults—you know, the section of the world’s population who’s “been there, done that,” so I was told I would maybe do well to listen to what they had to say.

I came to learn that when you’re a Filipino girl from a middle-class background, who’s expected to lead a financially stable career and live a non-starving life, you’re not supposed to aspire to become a writer. You should become either a teacher, a bank teller, or a nurse, or if you’re really smart and not averse to extra years of studying, you’re told you should go be a doctor or a lawyer. Writer was simply not in the list of the things you can or should aspire to become, because it was neither a “stable” nor a “practical” choice. I was told writers earn so little for so much work, and cautioned that the competition would be so stiff that only the insanely talented ever get to have some real success in that field. In a way, there too was the subliminal message, “Do you think people would really care to pay just to read what you have to say about things?

I understood the concern behind those cautions. In my life as a campus journalist, I got a taste of just how much work it took to produce a truly credible and worthy article. In my years competing in essay- and article-writing contests, I got to see the intimidating level of talent required for a piece of writing to stand out from the rest. I knew I could write, but I also knew I wasn’t insanely good at it. Why on earth would people care to read—much more pay for—words and sentences my brain just happened to piece together? In an ocean of written content already existing and continually added to by people way more talented than I was, why would my stories matter?

So in a way, I did understand why people tended to dissuade me from pursuing writing as a profession.

I understood…but at the same time, I didn’t. I didn’t understand why all these people didn’t understand. They didn’t understand how, to me, writing wasn’t simply something I wanted to do; it was who I was. It wasn’t just a way to earn money; it was a way of life. And to be told it wasn’t a “good” or “wise” choice for a profession took some processing in my mind. It took some kneading to accept in my heart.

Oprah: “This happens all the time. Anybody who can sing just a little bit, or they can write a piece of a poem, they think they’re supposed to be Maya Angelou all of a sudden. And you say people confuse talent with purpose.”

Bishop T.D. Jakes: “Yes, because so many times you have a modicum of talents in an area, maybe just enough talent to appreciate people who are really called to that area. It doesn’t mean that you need to necessarily go out and do that thing.”

The above exchange in one of Oprah’s Lifeclasses really struck me, because it touched on the reason why I didn’t pursue writing as a profession. Just because I could write, didn’t mean I would be good enough to make a living doing it. Now, on the one hand, we can chalk that up to acute self-awareness and a good sense of practicality that saved me from a lifelong struggle trying to make ends meet as the quintessential starving artist. On the other hand, we can just call it as it is—cowardice.

Yep, I didn’t pursue writing as a fulltime career because I was too chicken. Bok-bok-bok. I loved writing more than any other occupation—and I still do—but it was a pretty scary thing for me to stake my entire future on. The thing is, although I knew I could write, I feared that I didn’t have the talent, skill, and motivation enough to dish out consistently great write-ups for the rest of my life. Did I doubt my own talent/skill even before it had a chance to flourish? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll never know.

The artist uses the talent he has, wishing he had more talent. The talent uses the artist it has, wishing it had more artist.” ~ Robert Brault

Now, I continue to write, but more as a leisure and for my own sanity, not as a profession. Occasionally, during career transitions and breaks, I get to feel like a professional writer when I take on freelance ghostwriting projects. From time to time, I also get to have articles with my own name in the byline published in national publications (thus far, I’ve contributed three articles in newspapers and one in a teen magazine). During those times, the part of me that dreamed of doing writing as a fulltime career comes alive and pretends like it’s living the dream—getting a brief from editors, researching the topic, interviewing resource persons, having just words and words and words to grapple with all day long, daydreaming in coffee shops, overdosing on caffeine, putting the “pro” in procrastination, then hearing the footsteps of the deadline get close enough to jolt me back to grappling with words again—you get the picture.

Then when that phase is over, I go back to practicing my actual fulltime profession, which at this time is clinical psychology. And don’t get me wrong—I don’t resent being in the psychology field instead of being a fulltime writer. I have a passion for psychology and couldn’t be more thrilled that I get to practice it for a living. I truly feel that this is what I’m called to do at this leg of my life. I have so much I want to accomplish in terms of promoting mental well-being (especially at the community level), helping people cope with mental health issues, and eliminating the stigma against mental disorders. I want to get to do all these things, and I’m prepared to dedicate a considerable portion of my life to it.

Even though I currently don’t write for a living, writing remains to be an integral part of my life, my ever-constant friend and my saving grace. Writing isn’t a less worthy pursuit just because it’s not for publication/professional purposes. And here’s the thing: Just because I didn’t become a professional writer, doesn’t mean I won’t ever get to be one.

Because you know that girl who dreamed of becoming a writer—of doing writing as a profession and getting to publish a book someday? She continues to live on, inside of me. And one day, when the time is right, she will be called to come up to the surface again and write the way she was always meant to. This time, not just long enough to write a blog post or a journal entry. This time, not just to complete a freelance ghostwriting assignment. This time, not just as a pretend-life or a fantasy.

This time for real. This time, to fulfill her purpose.

You must understand that purpose is an underlying chemistry that makes you live your life…You may start out doing something that was not ‘the thing’ that you were created to do. It may only be the thing that leads to the thing you were created to do. So don’t stop at where you are as if it were the destination, when in fact in reality it may be the transportation that brings you into that thing you were created to do.” ~ Bishop T.D. Jakes

So if you too have a dream you’ve set aside at this time because—well, because life—don’t fret. Don’t lose hope. Don’t stop doing what you love, even if you only get to do it on the side or as a hobby. Don’t resent all the life choices you’ve already made. You may think those choices have only brought you farther and farther away from your dream, but you never know how the steps you’ve taken might actually turn out to be leading you to a full-circle moment, back to the opportunity to realize your dream—this time with you as a wiser, more capable person. This time not just as a fantasy.

This time for real. ♦

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” ~ Steve Jobs

About the Author •

Advertisements

76 thoughts on “On Writing for a Living (or How I Didn’t Become a Writer)

  1. This is a fantastic piece of writing ~ many of your insights could be taken from my own feelings and experience. I absolutely love the writing process; creation of the structure of what it is I want to say, the challenge of putting it on paper, and then the journey/effort to see it through. While I’ll always harbor the feeling of someday being able to write something grand and glorious, or a series of work where I could make a living, the reality is those opportunities and dreams are quite limited. The Oprah quote near the end of your post I think sums it up well…which is why I revel in the small writing I do for enjoyment, hobby, and most importantly, my sanity 🙂 Wishing you well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Randall! I’ve read and seen some of the work you do, combing the beautiful pictures you take with well-written philosophical musings, and I really believe someday that could be compiled into a series of work that would earn money. But I also feel that getting to create such is a reward in itself for you (as you said, for enjoyment and sanity, haha), as it is for me…and that’s already something to be grateful for. Wish you well, too! 🙂

      Like

  2. I loved this article 🙂
    I’ve always thought I’d end up being a writer as I loved to do it and got some awards and appreciation too.
    Now I work in tourism and write on a regular basis. One of things that changed is being a writer by profession feels a very introverted activity – something I longed to leave behind.
    Life stepping in the way meant for me living a more interesting life, meeting people, learning languages (English not being my mother tongue), etc.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if you were “living the dream” you’d miss the sense and purpose you have from clinical psychology now.
    And, as you said, life is long. If you can and want to, save up a bit, take a couple years break and give professional writing a chance 🙂

    Like

  3. It’s true that your passion doesn’t have to be your profession. One businessman and published author here in Jo’burg emphasized that. At the end of the day, we have to live. My mother also told me not to study Journalism. I became an Accountant instead. I don’t regret it. I love figures and I love what I do. Having a full-time job provides me with unlimited story ideas and characters, although it does take me away from writing. Many other things take me away from writing. I have published works and my full-time job pays for it. 🙂 I don’t have to starve and I still get to be a “professional” writer. Ha-ha! One day soon, when the casino stops calling me all the time, I will get cracking with the second book in the series, “Crossroads and Conquests: Odyssey of a Woman”. In case you’re curious, the first book, the poetry one, is available on Amazon, both paperback and Kindle. *wink*.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ahhh, this is the second of your blogs I’ve read this morning. I agree with both! I wrote a story when I was in my teens and as I was doing it, it gave me such a thrill that I realised that it was something that I really wanted to do, but as you say, life had other ideas and I didn’t write anything, not a smidgeon, for another fifteen odd years. When I started up again it was a hobby, but methinks I’m finally getting to a place where writing actually seems feasible…we shall see:)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t read through all the comments, so apologies if someone else said this, but having a talent in something is the very first step. To successfully do most trades or crafts one has to put in an immense amount of of work into them. Some writers are capable to achieve success without always having worked hard but they found where their voice would fit, and capitalized off of that.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s