Monday, March 14, 2011

Are you good enough to be a writer?

As a freelance editor, most of my clients, on some level, want an answer to this question. But I'm not even sure the question is valid.

You either are a writer, or you're not. Because you either write, or you don't. Those who write, over time, will get better at it.

Most people who write are drawn to the lifestyle as much as the activity. The stereotypes are fun—camping out at a coffeehouse with a laptop, tucking yourself away in a secluded cabin, or working from home in your pajamas. I've done all of these. Call it method acting— these behaviors strengthen my writing persona, inside and out.

But at a deeper level, writers don't want corporate structure ruling their days. They're entrepreneurs, willing to gamble that they have something to offer that the world will want to buy. For me this transcends want; it's what my soul needs to thrive. Writers need the freedom to explore ideas that seem meaningful to them, and to follow unexpected tangents to their inevitable conclusions in a way that would drive a corporate manager insane.

Some of us choose this life even while hating to give up a steady paycheck and health insurance and the inherent benchmarks a corporate ladder provides. On a ladder everyone knows if they're good enough—just check out the rung and you'll see where you stand. At some point we want writing to be a meritocracy, where those who have put in their time and learned their craft will suddenly be discovered and rewarded with bestseller status and mounds of cash.

The harsh truth: if you eschew corporate America and embrace the writing life, you lose its ladder as well. Until a publishing company starts telling you what to do ("Simon & Schuster owns me," author Judith Viorst once told me), you are both your boss and your employee.

To succeed, both must be equally developed. My boss (left brain) is always coming up with some new plan that my inner writer (right brain) would be happy to derail.

Boss: "Kathryn, this week you're going to get up at 5 a.m. every day to write, when you'll get no e-mail to derail you."

Employee: "Thanks! I love to write!"

Boss, Monday morning at 5:15 a.m.: "Hey, what are you doing writing that e-mail? Get back to your writing."

Employee: "You can't make me."

Boss, patiently trying to re-motivate: "But you love to write. I set aside this time just for you."

Employee: "But I keep forgetting to to e-mail Ellen about something. Anyway, writing e-mail counts. There's a long precedent: letters of authors can get published."

To keep your inner employee on track you must do your own performance reviews. Instead of hoping your critique group or freelance editor will tell you you're a good writer, listen to your own writing to decide whether you've communicated effectively. If you've accomplished what you set out to do (not what others hoped you would do), you can give yourself a good review.

If you haven't, you can revise--and give yourself a good review.

If you're struggling in an aspect of craft and need more education, sign up for a course or buy a how-to book to improve—and give yourself a good review.

If one day your energy is low and applying more words to the page overwhelms, let your boss give you the afternoon to research, instead, and the next day you'll be up and writing with new ideas to apply. Then give yourself a good review.

The writers who are in it for the long haul benefit from recognizing their work as a calling, or vocation. I feel that way, although according to author and theologian Frederick Buechner, I'm only halfway there. Buechner defines a vocation as "where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Hmm. I've got that "deep gladness" in spades. But does the world have a deep hunger for what I have to offer? Time will tell. Until then, I must urge myself on. (Blogged today! Good performance review—because it's only in getting my work out there that I can discover whether the world hungers it.)

Is being a good writer really as easy as being your own cheerleader? As long as you're writing, and moving ever closer to effective communication through the stories or articles you choose to write, I believe this is true. And we'd better develop this trait now, because we'll need it, commercial success or no. If we allow money to define success, how will we weather market fluctuations? If we hand away our performance reviews to others, how will we withstand the critics who'll be happy to tell us that our freshman efforts were pap?

There's really only one way to be a bad writer, and that's to stop.

But then, by definition, you aren't a writer at all.


Anonymous said...

I especially like this: My boss (left brain) is always coming up with some new plan that my inner writer (right brain) would be happy to derail.

We are our own worst enemy as a writer and have to be our own champion. As my brain spins from the recent conference, I will use this to tackle one writing project at a time this week.

And you DO ask the best questions!
Donna G.

Marie Gilbert said...

Oh my God! I love reading your posts. I began writing because of a horrendus story on human trafficking. After spending some time trying to understand this evil practice, I come up with the backstory of the book. Writing has opened a doorway for me to cope with the bad stuff in the world today.

Jerry Waxler said...

Kathryn, Your meaningful blogs inspire me to write, to blog, and to read other blogs. Thanks for this! As for the topic itself, we seem to keep overlapping in our interests. My 200 page workshop packet (as Jonathan calls it) is based on this premise that if you want to solve the problem "how do I keep writing" then you can. Like solving any other problem, you just have to stock up on motivation and techniques and start solving. Like the hero of a good story, the writer tenaciously overcomes obstacles. Anyone who wants to become the protagonist of their own life story simply has to start writing themselves into that role. :)

Four Elements for Writers

Kathryn Craft said...

Donna: My intrapersonal divide is so deep I could do a stand-up "left-brain, right-brain" routine. Inner arguing, all the time!

Marie: I use my writing to find hope. And if I dig far enough, I can usually find it. I'm glad it helps you, too.

Kathryn Craft said...

Of course this is right up your alley. You're a therapist: if you were treating both halves of my brain, would it cost me twice as much?

Lynette said...

What a perceptive and straight-talking post. Just what I needed today, when the push/pull between what must be my corporate and employee brains has been particularly unnerving. And then there's always the conflict between the sitting-in-a-coffeehouse-writing image, and the need to go home and wash the dishes.

Thank you!

Kathryn Craft said...

Thanks for you comment, Lynette. It made me think of one of my favorite quotes, from Anne-Sophie Swetchine:

"Might we not say to the confused voices which sometimes arise from the depths of our being, Ladies, be so kind as to only speak four at a time?"