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The Realities of Being a Writer

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You are a writer. You are sitting in a deck chair on the veranda of your beautiful, rambling home (paid for by the proceeds of your writing) looking out over the beach of a remote tropical island. Drink in hand, you are thinking about your next bestseller, and as the ideas tumble freely into your head you jot them on a pad beside you. You have already received a sizable advance payment, and your publisher is eagerly waiting for your manuscript.

Your wife (or husband) appears on the scene periodically to refresh your drink or bring other sustenance. Knowing that creative people like you need uninterrupted time to think, she and the rest of your family and friends leave you in peace.

Finally, you reach for the laptop beside you and begin to type. Words pour from your fingers as the masterpiece assembles itself before your eyes.

Then you wake up.

Reality Number One: Writing is work. Of course, it is possible to puddle around, knocking out a poem or an article from time to time when the inspiration hits you. If you have sufficient natural ability, you might even fluke publication from time to time. That, however, hardly qualifies you as a writer – and almost certainly will not earn you an income from writing. To be effective, you need to treat writing as a job. Schedule “work hours”, and work during those times.

Reality Number Two: Your muse is lazy and inconsistent. Contrary to popular opinion, writers do not have a constant stream of inspiration. You need to stir it up. Use “prompts” to start you writing. Don’t wait for inspiration – find a topic and write to it. It is important to make yourself write, even when you feel totally uninspired. Another way to stir up the creative juices is to put your ideas in diagramatic form. In the middle of a large sheet of paper, write your central idea in as few words as possible. Circle or put a box around it, then surround it with ideas that relate to it, each in its own bubble and connected to the central thought. Ideas that flow from them are then added, connected to idea from which they came. I find this is a great tool to clear my head, generate new ideas, and sort my thoughts in relation to
each other.

Reality Number Three: Your family and friends will probably not consider writing a real job. You will probably have to fight to establish the principle that work time is work time, and you cannot stop to chat, play, go for a walk, run an errand, walk the dog or whatever else they may want. You can do any of those things when you finish work, but writing time is for writing.

Reality Number Four: Unless you are among a very small minority, you will not get rich by writing. Writing is one of the most competitive fields of endeavor in the world today. Unless you are able to secure either a permanent writing job or a regular gig (for example, as a columnist), checks will – particularly at first – be few and irregular.

Reality Number Five: That piece that you are sure is destined to win you the Nobel Prize for Literature? Others may consider it pompous, overwritten trash. It can be hard for us to recognize the shortcomings of our work. After all, it is our baby, born in travail from our own soul. Of course it is beautiful! What’s more, our family and friends will agree totally with our assessment. Learn to step back from your work. If at all possible, find someone impartial to critique it. (I mean really critique it, not just join your mutual admiration society.) Put your work away for a bit, then
come back and look at it as if you had not written it. The only way to improve is to accept that improvement is needed.

Reality Number Six: The largest part of being a writer is waiting. For me, this is the harshest of the realities of writing, and the largest cause of my long-standing love/hate relationship with the craft of writing. You labor to produce a piece. You hone, tweak and polish it. Then you send it off to an editor. And wait. and wait. and wait. Then you wait some more. If your writing is a book, you may eventually get an offer of a contract. You sign and send it off. Then you wait for the proofs. You correct and send them back. Then you wait for publication. Finally, your book is released. Then you wait for the royalties check.

Reality Number Seven: Being a writer is as much about promotion as it is about writing. You have to learn to write query letters that will catch an editor’s eye. You have to learn to write book proposals. You have to work on making yourself known to the reading public, because people who think they know you are more likely to read your work than those who have never heard your name. You have to learn to say, “I am a writer” – something that is difficult for many writers, because they don’t really take themselves seriously. If you don’t believe in you, why should anyone else?

Reality Number Eight: Alone on a mountaintop with your muse might sound wonderful, but writers need people. Interacting, observing, experiencing, listening, analyzing, are all necessary grist for the creative mill. Even if you think people are a total pain, if you cut yourself off from them for too long you will almost certainly hinder your creative expression.

And, just so you don’t think it is all negative:
Reality Number Nine: Words are delicious. Never lose sight of the most basic motivation of writing. God has granted to mankind the wonderful gift of language. Words can paint a picture, evoke an emotion, stir a response, capture a moment. Words can be gentle and subtly nuanced, or they can be bold and in-your-face. They can soothe you or slap you. Words are delicious! Being able to play with them is a reward in itself.

Reality Number Ten: No matter how long you have been writing, no matter how many times you have been published before, seeing your creation in print is one of the greatest thrills of life. Knowing that people whom you will never meet will be moved, encouraged, instructed or just tickled by this child that you have brought forth from your soul, makes realities number one through eight worthwhile.

What is your biggest writing challenge?
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