On Being a Writer

Thanks again to Jane Collen for her informative blog post on intellectual property!

Sarah wrote this on the website in January: I’ve loved writing stories for as long as I can remember. Even before I could write actual words, I’d draw pictures and make up stories to go along with them. I’ve always hoped that one day I might be able to be an author.

Now, I’m in high school, and I still love writing. I’m getting to a point where I need to begin thinking seriously about what I want to do. I’d still like to be an author, but I’m not sure that’s possible. I write all the time in a journal, and love it, but I’m hesitant to share my writing with anyone else, because I’m scared of what others might think. I know that when someone sends something to get published, it’s very likely to be rejected. I guess I’m afraid to pursue a career where I might never get anything published and never be successful. So, my question to you would be, do you think I should pursue a writing career, or continue to enjoy writing for my own enjoyment but look into a different career. Any advice you could offer for an aspiring writer would be much appreciated. Thank you!

Let’s start with careers. If your goal is to be a novelist, few people who aren’t very wealthy can graduate from college and devote a year or two or four to writing without some other source of income. During the ten years it took me to get published (nine to get an acceptance), I worked for New York State government. I wrote mostly on the train during my very long commute. So I think it makes sense to prepare for a job while you also continue to write. I’m not a career counselor, but I am certain that good writing is an asset in almost any job. If any of you reading the blog know something about this, please weigh in. You may want to prepare for a career that will use your writing skills directly. Public relations, grant writing, technical writing, and advertising leap to mind. I have no idea what the opportunities are in those fields. There must be more fields for writers, too. If there are career counselors at your high school or college, I suggest you consult them. And again, if you’re reading the blog and write on the job, please tell us what you do.

I say, look for a field that interests you, that you think will be fun to do most days. And – I hope this isn’t presumptuous – cultivate in yourself the capacity to have fun in whatever you’re doing. One of the charms of being a writer, professionally or not, is the ability to stand outside what’s going on. You can satirize it or dramatize it. You can invent backstories for the players, your fellow toilers, the boss, the boss’s boss. You can imagine the meetings that led to the insane employees’ manual.

You may need to decide whether you want the kind of career that will engage you fully, that will demand sixteen hour days of you, or the kind that will let you go home at night and write. There are pluses and minuses of each.

I must confess that I did no such planning. I graduated from college during a recession, and I had been a philosophy major, and I took the first job I could get, which was with an economics research firm, a very bad fit. I took a test for a government job and began to work for the long-defunct WIN Program, placing welfare recipients in jobs. I loved it, because it fulfilled a need in me to be helpful. But it really was dumb luck. Then I got promoted out of what pleased me, and the second fifteen years of my twenty-seven years in state government were only intermittently satisfying. I stayed because I needed the security – not a good reason. However, my job didn’t demand much overtime, and I started writing in my last ten years there, and you know the rest.

The point is, life is full of surprises. The path you start down may be the right one, but if not, you can veer off, change your mind, do something else. I was almost fifty when Ella Enchanted was published.

Onto success. I am extremely lucky (because of the Newbery honor, the movie, the Disney books, the confidence that HarperCollins had in me from the start) to be able to earn my living as a writer. Not many writers do, and they are still successful. Let me repeat that: They are still successful. In the arts, where competition is extreme, success needs to be defined in other than monetary ways. If you’ve written an entire novel, that’s a measure of success. If you’ve gotten something published that is success too. If someone – one person! – has read your work, has been moved by it, even changed, that’s success. You don’t have to have the whole enchilada to be successful. And no matter how much success you do accumulate, someone else will have more.

An aside. You may be thinking that the Newbery honor wasn’t luck because I’d written a good book. But plenty of good books don’t get the recognition they deserve. I once judged picture book texts for a contest. My fellow judges and I had to come up with one winner and, if I remember correctly, one runner-up. The book I loved the most didn’t appeal in the slightest to the other judges, so it was out. From the other ten that I adored it was almost impossible to choose which was best, and yet we had to. If I had eaten a different breakfast on the morning when we decided, if one of the judges had seen a different movie the night before, if the day had been rainy, we might have made a different selection. There was definitely an element of luck.

And now onto, criticism, which is everyone’s lot in life. I confess that I can tolerate writing criticism much more comfortably than I can take criticism of my character or of the stupid things I sometimes do or the thoughtless remarks I sometimes make. Being called up for those really makes me cringe. If the criticism is on target I endure a period of miserable shame.

Some writing criticism I actually like, if it shows me how to improve my work. If it lights a path to a better story, if it inspires new creativity, I’m ecstatic.

And some writing criticism I dislike. If I start to feel that my whole effort was a failure, I find that as hard to tolerate as the personal criticism. But once I see how I can make my story better, the pain fades.

For most writers criticism is essential. Few of us bang out perfect prose, and few of us can see all our flaws. We need an objective eye.

If writing criticism is intolerable to you, I’d suggest you reassess your position. Try to take the criticism in, in a way that’s less painful. You might read some of my other posts on criticism and rejection. However, if you try and you just can’t deal with it positively, then writing professionally may not be for you. You may be happier keeping it as a hobby.

From criticism to rejection. We all experience it, as writers and not as writers. In ordinary life, we get rejected by our first choice school or by a crush or by a potential friend. In writing, rejection is as common as the flu and just as welcome. I’m still experiencing it. Not too long ago my editor turned down a picture book project I wanted to do. And my poetry is garnering more rejections than acceptances. It’s hard not to take it personally, but writing rejection is affected by many factors. One, of course, is the quality of the work. But others may be the market or similarity to something else the publishing house is putting out or the personal preferences of the editor. The problem is, you may never know what the real reason is. It may be impossible not to feel bad, and it’s fine to wallow in your misery – but not forever. It’s important, probably crucial, not to let a rejection make you dislike your work. The trick is to send it back out and keep writing and using criticism to get better.

Whew! Time to get off my soapbox! Here are two prompts:

• Write a journal entry about yourself and your future and your attitudes toward success, criticism, and rejection. Assess yourself. Consider what you think will make you happy in your professional life. Write about what you need to do to get there. Do not heap criticism on yourself in the process!

• You know The Rule of Three? Cinderella goes to three balls. The queen in “Rumpelstiltskin” guesses his name three times. The evil queen in “Snow White” visits her in her home with the dwarves three times. That’s three examples, but there are lots more, because three seems to be a satisfying number. Write a fairy tale about an aspiring writer using The Rule of Three. If you like, turn her into a toad (or anything else), bring in a dragon, an actual fairy, a talking wolf.

Have fun, and save what you write!