The Difference Between Writing and Being a Writer

Every now and again I come across someone who, tickled by my profession of writing, reveals that he/she has harbored thoughts of “getting a book published and making a bunch of money.” I want to tread carefully here because I never, ever wish to discourage anyone from pursuing an artistic inclination, however I can’t help but squirm with great irritation at the widely held beliefs that 1) Writing is easy enough to just pick up one day on a whim, 2) Publishing a book happens all the time, so how hard can it be, right? And 3) Writing a book = making money. These notions are fallacies, I am sorry to say, making those of us who are persistent and passionate enough to really make an earnest effort to do the work of a writer a much heartier bunch of folk than most would assume. Almost anyone can write, but there’s a reason not just anyone can be a writer.

Again, I do want to be clear on what kind of line I’m drawing here and where I’m drawing it: I think everyone could benefit from experiencing the written word, in some form or another. The act of writing has long been good medicine for the soul, and there is something truly cathartic about processing a thought into words and seeing it suddenly exist in tangible form before your eyes. Anyone who truly wishes to commit themselves (pun intended) to the art of writing has my full and unabashed support. But that commitment to do the work of a writer is significantly more intense than most non-writer types could ever guess. Not only must you constantly study the craft, read and absorb as much literature as your brain can hold, sacrifice nearly all spare time and money to support the career, teach and speak and publish to build enough of a marketing base to keep your head above water, but you must do all of that in the face of constant doubt and rejection. And unless you are Stephen King or a celebrity author, you do it all for peanuts. I haven’t even mentioned the emotional turmoil and strife that, historically speaking, attach themselves to the life of a writer.

I say all of this today because I find myself to be a glutton of punishment, as a writer anyway. I recall a panel workshop at a writer’s conference a few years ago when an author described the experience of completing the first draft of a novel only to realize in the very completion of it that her main character was the wrong gender—that all the novel’s problems could be cured by turning her male character into a female one. I listened to her describe the horror of dissembling her manuscript to accommodate the change, and hoped I’d never write myself into that kind of corner. Well, I’ve just written myself into the nastiest of corners, and I’ve no choice but to get my hands dirty and write myself back out of it.

I’ve been working on the first draft of my YA novel for over two years, and am within about six or seven chapters of completing the story. Smooth sailing from here on out, right? Nope. All this time, I’ve been unable to transfer the moody, intelligent, brave girl I hold in my head to the page. Instead, I’ve only managed to plop down this limp noodle of a tween, who barely holds her creator’s interest and can’t possibly fare any better with the average reader. The disclaimer here is that my first drafts are nearly always drivel; the real magic of my writing typically takes place in the slog of slave-like revisions, and that’s just how I work. But even relative to the “shitty first draft” method of writing to which I generally adhere, my limp noodle of a protagonist just wasn’t cutting it, and I couldn’t figure out why. Enter some tough love from my most reliable friend and writing partner, Kelly: sitting at our last manuscript meeting, Kelly uttered those fateful words “I know what you need to do to fix Fitz, but you’re not gonna like it. You’ve got to change the point of view.” Gulp. Horror. Dread. Dread. Dread.

Of course she was, and is, right on this one. I’ve written ¾ of the manuscript in what writers call the “Third Person Omniscient” POV, and instead, the story is calling out to be written in the First Person Limited” POV. For the laymen, this means that instead of an all-knowing, outside voice saying “Fitz walked away from her home, not knowing that her father watched her from an upstairs window,” that line would have to read “I walked away from my house, wondering if anyone even knew I was gone.” Or something like that, but anyway you get the idea. I’m 100% confident that this massive change is what will save my book, but making it happen is another matter entirely. I’ve decided to finish out the manuscript in the POV I started it with, to just finish the damn thing. And when I muster up the strength, I’ll re-write the whole sonofabitch in a completely different voice and perspective. It will drastically alter almost every aspect of the novel. It will be no easy feat–of that I am certain.

The process will be ugly and painful, and I don’t look forward to it. Book one of a planned trilogy, this bad-boy might never even see the light of day, no matter how hard I work on it or for how long or how good it is. Like all things publishing industry-related, it’s a total crapshoot. So why do I do it? Why do I furiously devour every YA novel ever written in the first person for inspiration, why do I toss out two year’s worth of work just to start over again nearly from scratch? Why do I suffer and toil and tear out my hair over a piece of work that might only live out its dark eternity in the back of a desk drawer? Because I must. Because I have dedicated my life to this nonsense. Because I have no other choice—because it is what I was put on this planet to do. See—that’s the difference between real writers and writer-wannabees. Every real writer endures this sort of struggle because there is something inside us that drives that engine toward the written word in the face of abject abuse and suffering. Real writers know that there may very likely never be any monetary or critical reward for the effort, but that the endeavor itself is rewarding enough to stick with it.

Having my debut book published next year is fantastic, but it’s not what makes me feel like a real writer. Pulling a stagerring eight all-nighters in a row to finish revising that book, however, does make me feel like a real writer. Seeing the novel I’m currently working on make it to print might not validate my efforts entirely, but the effort itself is what validates me, and my identity as a writer. Most days, that self-validation goes an awfully long way, and I’m thinking it might just be enough to sustain me through the daunting task that lies ahead.


7 thoughts on “The Difference Between Writing and Being a Writer

  1. Here in L.A. there is an abundance of “writers”, who never intended to write in order to create a quality work of art. Rather most folks who are “writers” here are “actors” (most often just people that didn’t want to do the labor of a real job) who were recommended by another “actor” mentor to “write something” since no one would hire them to act.

    Similar to the way that the art of photography is trivialized by the fact that we all have cameras on our phones and believe ourselves to be “good” at taking pictures. The fact that you can use a pen (keyboard) doesn’t mean you should write. Like voting just because you have the right to or shooting a gun simply because you can own one. We need to know how to properly use a tool before we should employ it. And that, I suppose, offers the real issue: how do you discern whether your have “properly” learned how to write/act/take a picture? Maybe it’s when you hate what you are doing as much as you love it?

    And such is art; anyone can do it, but most people aren’t artists.

    Always love the posts Tanya. “Within about six or seven chapters of completing the story” sounds exciting!

  2. Just when I’m running out of steam, your perspective reignites the flame. Thank you and best wishes with what is and what’s to come… xoXo

  3. “And unless you are Stephen King or a celebrity author, you do it all for peanuts.”

    …wait, you’re getting peanuts?! Where can I pick mine up?

    Loved this, and I needed to hear (read) it more than you know.

  4. Whenever someone gives me the “I think I’ll be a writer,” speech, I consider coming back with “I think I’ll be a doctor. I’ve always wanted to be one. How hard can it be?” But usually I just describe what it’s been like for me and the writers I know: the rejections, the frustrations, the changes in the industry, and the personal satisfaction of doing what I was born to do. If this hasn’t turned the person completely off writing, it’s “welcome aboard.”

  5. This was incredibly timely for me. I quit my “day job” last month to pursue writing, and was floundering something fierce. It had also been over a year since the last time I had actually finished reading a novel, something I had convinced myself was necessary to “keep my vision pure” or some such nonsense.

    After reading this, I started reading again in earnest, and when I was ~50 pages shy of finishing that first book in a year, I had to stop reading to furiously scribble down several breakthroughs in my three-year WIP novel, some of which turned the whole story on its ear in the way you described above. Luckily, I have yet to start writing the narrative of my book, so radically shifting story focus/perspective isn’t quites as daunting, but I’ve still got my work cut out for me!

    So, yes. Thank you very much for this well-timed kick in the pants. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Magic bean buyer » Read: The Mirage, by Matt Ruff

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