It took a while before I felt comfortable calling myself a writer. Saying that you are a writer elicits so many questions. Some are easier to answer, such as, “What do you write?” or “Are you working on a novel?” When I respond to the first question, I explain my love for the essay form and that my favorite genre is creative nonfiction. That term sometimes requires explanation—isn’t all writing creative?— but then I add that I use the tools of the novelist while telling a true story. This seems to help them understand, and I can point them to examples, essays, books, or magazine pieces that fall under this genre.
The second question is a bit trickier, because many people immediately think of novels when you say that you are a writer. I savor novels too, with their characters and plots, evocative descriptions, and scenes. I even made an unfinished attempt at a novel many years ago, but I did not finish it. I didn’t commit the time, the plot began to flounder, and I put it aside.
Then comes the inevitable third question “So have you written a book yet, are you published?” Even though I have been published, I had to learn that being published, the frequency of it or the recognition it can bring, cannot be my sole reason for writing. If I have labored over a work, then it is often my intent to send it out, to share it with others. But first, I had to get over imagining the book cover, the catchy title, book tours and readings. I was left with only one course of action – I had to sit down and put the words on paper. All of those imaginings are great for inspiration and ideation, but until I place the words on the page, wrestle, tease or play with them until they are properly positioned, it’s all make-believe.
Writing forces me to deal with my desire for perfection. Every time I sit down at my desk to begin a new piece, I wonder how it is going to turn out, or if it will be any good. At first. But the best part of writing is that I give myself permission to just let the words come, whether they are in a rush so swift I cannot contain them, or if they come as a measly drip, drip, drip, one tentative word at a time. When I finish the day’s writing, I always am slightly amazed at myself, not because the writing is so incredible, because it is not most of the time, certainly not right away. I am amazed because I sat down with the intention to write and I did it. I kept a commitment to myself, using a gift that I let languish for years because I was busy doing other stuff. I used to want to be like those people who discovered their vocation early in life, wishing that I had started sooner on this writing life. I have made peace with that dream, because I have lived long enough to have rich and varied experiences, and enough years have passed that I have perspective and insight about what I have gone through.
I believe that everyone is an artist of some sort. Creativity has to be nurtured, but it must also be explored. This exploration takes place when we become more aware of the diversity of thought, experience, style, and culture around us. Without this awareness of different perspectives, an adult tells a child that her picture “doesn’t look quite right,” and believes it. A writer tells a story, and because it is so foreign to your worldview, you dismiss it, instead of looking for the kernel of truth or insight, or even humor, that might be present.
I am partial to the written word, but I also have explored sewing, pottery, singing, dancing, and improving my French and Spanish. I go to hear other authors read, visit museums, poke around in small shops, searching for other ways to look at and feel the world. We are all artists of some sort, and to the question, “How do I get paid for it?” my advice is not to wait to figure out how to make money at it, at least not right away. Practice, explore, get better, and then consider if this craft is something you love enough to pursue whether it feeds you or not. I think you will be enriched by the experience of exploring your creativity, whether it becomes your livelihood or not.