On Bad Advice

“I want to be a writer,” I’d say — to my friends, my family, guidance counselors, coworkers. Between the ages of eleven and twenty or so, this is what I’d tell people when they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, what my favorite classes were in high school, and what I wanted to go to college for.

And after the muddled confusion and disappointment cleared from their face, they would give me a small smile and reply, “Oh. So you’re probably going to be an Englisher teacher? Or maybe a reporter?”

“No,” I insisted. “A writer.”

At eighteen, I was absolutely terrified over the prospect of graduating high school and facing the intimidating monster that was college. To make matters worse, no one seemed to be able to tell me what to do with my desire to pursue writing. Somehow, even though I’d wanted to be a writer since sixth grade, even though I excelled at English, Literature, and Writing classes, even though people told me, adamantly, admiringly, you should be a writer, no one could tell me how to make this happen.

And the summer that I graduated was such a time of emotional trauma that I didn’t have the drive or confidence to find out for myself.

Fast forward nearly twenty (GASP) years, and part of me wishes that I could tell that eighteen-year-old girl to pursue creative writing. Grant writing. Professional writing. Literature. Communication. I wish I would have told her that the choice of a major didn’t mean she’d be destined for one particular path, but rather that investigating any of these subjects would have opened the doors to several paths — editing, copy writing, technical writing, business writing, journalism. And that yes, even these more “logical” paths might have even helped her craft novels.

You see, up until the last several years, I thought that if you weren’t making money with your writing, or if you didn’t do it eight hours a day, that you weren’t a writer.

When I decided to get back into writing back in 2015/2016, I still called myself an “aspiring” writer instead of just a writer. And it took some time before I felt confident enough to acknowledge that I was truly a writer, despite the fact that it wasn’t my profession and I hadn’t made a single dime spinning these tales.

While this is probably the single most important realization I’ve had over the years, and I’ve inevitably stumbled upon heaps and heaps of advice about writing, the next most important thing I’ve learned is to find what works for you.

If you’re a new writer, or getting back into writing after a hiatus (like me), one of the first things you’ll realize when you start perusing writer websites, newsletters, and Facebook groups is that everyone is full of advice. From Stephen King to Internet trolls whose only purpose is to bash others for having different opinions or priorities, everyone seems to think they know what’s best for everyone else.

And though I’m about to dish out my own amateur, naïve advice, I’d like to think that mine has some merit, if only for the fact that I believe in finding out what works for you.

Naturally, and to the horror of diehard academics, pompous literary geniuses, old-fashioned professors, and ubiquitous Internet demons who lurk on message boards, what works for some people does not work for others.

This is true when it comes to exercise, learning a new skill, dating, paying bills, traveling, raising kids. A routine or method that someone else swears by may not work for their neighbor or best friend or sister. So why would it work for writing?

There are writers who insist that in order to be a “real” writer, one must write every day. Ideally, that would be great, especially if you’re already getting paid for your craft and your livelihood depends on your production.
But what about the young man working two jobs in attempt to pay off his school loans? What about the new mom struggling to put 200 words a day together while catering to a newborn? What about the middle-aged hopeful taking care of their dad with Alzheimer’s? What about the twenty-something coping with PTSD?
Even if you aren’t a writer whose life is currently effected by extreme circumstances, no one’s life or schedule is cookie-cutter perfect.
Even when my mental health is pretty well in check, I still have days that do not allow me to write — when I go to the pool right after work and want to spend a few precious hours with my husband before bed. When family is in from out of town and they want to have dinner. When a friend is having a crisis and they just need to spend a few hours with me venting and eating ice cream. When I bring my dog home from a day-long procedure at the vet and I cuddle up around her in bed, holding her as she trembles through the pain of heartworm treatment.
As far as I’m concerned, attending to other parts of my life does not make me any less of a writer or a “bad” writer by any means.

I am far more disciplined that I was several years ago. I’ve learned to recognize when I need a break from writing, when an emergency or special event takes precedence, and when I’m just being lazy and really need to buckle down and sit at the keyboard.
I still have things to learn and goals I want to pursue. I’m still working on landing that first paid writing job and hopefully an agent or full manuscript request. I’d love to take a class on effective blogging, marketing, and social media presence. I can’t wait until in person conferences are permissible again.
But at the same time I am damn proud of each and every one of my published works. Sometimes I can’t believe that I’ve managed to write two entire novels in as many years.
Yes, I get frustrated, and yes I wish I hadn’t wasted all those years putting my writing on the back burner. But I no longer beat myself up for having a life outside of writing — and I definitely don’t put too much stock in not adhering to advice that simply doesn’t work for me.

Any time I peruse Facebook or Twitter, I see plenty of people, young, old, and middle aged, begging others for help with their writing. Most of them have full-time jobs outside of the craft or personal obligations like kids or aging parents that make it difficult to stick to a routine or to “WRITE EVERYDAY.” Because of this, they feel like failures — and there is no shortage of people who comment insisting that if these people don’t do things exactly the way that they do them that they are destined to fail.

Well, I vehemently disagree. As I mentioned earlier, just because yoga works to keep your best friend in shape doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. Just because some people I went to high school with had kids at twenty-one and twenty-four doesn’t mean I should have. Just because my husband and I own a house doesn’t mean that someone living in an apartment is wrong, or irresponsible or poor.

If writing every day works for you — great. If you can’t start your day without writing 2000 words at the ass crack of dawn — great. If instead you string together 10,000 words every Sunday and don’t write any other day of the week — great. If you stay awake til 1am every Friday evening crafting the perfect opening chapter — great. If you hole yourself up inside the library or local coffee shop, ignoring your cell phone and hunching over a laptop for hours on end — great.

If you, like me, write by the advice of one of my favorite groups, 10 Minute Novelists, and write as much as you can whenever you get a chance — great.

Everyone is fundamentally different — in how they think, how they feel, how they write, how they work. To assume that someone’s lack of success is because they aren’t doing things exactly how you do it is, at the very least, pure ignorance.

As someone who spent an entire decade thinking I couldn’t be a writer because I didn’t pursue a specific major, hold a certain job, or have endless hours of writing time everyday, I would never, ever want anyone else to feel like I did — that I wasn’t worthy of this craft.

Because I am. And so are you.

4 thoughts on “On Bad Advice

  1. A couple years ago, my wife and I saw Sara Bareilles do a Times Talks in New York. There was a young girl in the audience who referred to herself as an aspiring writer, and Sara said to her that, no, if she wrote things, she was a writer.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Here because of Bill’s blog! So glad I found you, I feel like I’ve had the same trepidations about writing or having the courage to write or call myself a writer. But now I feel like I’ve found my voice and realized that I do have stories to share. ❤️ Love this post.

    Liked by 1 person

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