Growing up, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I loved the very thought of such a career and ached to see my creations on bookshelves. My only frame of reference for what a writer’s life looked like, however, was what I saw in movies and television shows.
As I began pursuing a writing career, I soon discovered all the parts that are not pretty enough for the screen.
If I could prepare my younger, starry-eyed self for what a writer’s life really is, here’s what I’d say:
1. Sometimes you hate writing.
I love writing. Love, love, love it. Cannot picture myself not writing. That said, sitting in a chair and cranking out words is frequently the last thing I want to do. Writing can be tedious, frustrating, demoralizing and lonely.
You hate it when the words don’t come. You hate it when they do but no one appreciates them. You hate it when you spend hours on a piece and no publisher wants to pay you for your work. Yes, writing can downright suck.
Frustration is the essential part of writing that separates the wannabes from the destined.
2. Without balance, writing will drive you crazy.
Writing requires you to be in your head and emotion for extended periods of time. Sometimes it requires to you explore emotions that are difficult and draining, like grief, abusive anger or paralyzing fear. To write characters who move the reader, you must climb into these emotions, wear them and write from within them.
Balance is crucial to bring yourself back to a healthy mental place. For me, that’s my Christian faith. When I have written from mentalities and emotions that drain me, I reset with Scripture and quiet time with the Lord.
3. Success as a writer is a long, slow climb.
Overnight success is so rare, it should be the punchline of a meme. Often, those writers who seem to have struck “instant” success have actually been laboring for years at their craft. Behind their success are countless failures, nonstarts and restarts.
If you want to be a writer, prepare for success to come slowly.
4. You won’t be paid fairly for your time or talent.
You will be shocked how many publishers expect you to be satisfied with working in exchange for exposure, a.k.a. “your name will be in front of our [insert number here] subscribers.” Even farmers aren’t paid this ridiculously.
Humorist Robert Benchley explains, “The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.”
5. You will doubt yourself at every turn.
You will second-guess everything you do or choose not to do. This encompasses writing itself, career choices, priorities, how much coffee you drink. All of it.
Stephen King, who needs no introduction, told Rolling Stone in a 2014 interview that he wrestles self-doubt to this day: “I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing – that it won’t come up for me, or that I won’t be able to finish it.”
Doubt is a writer’s constant companion, but not an undefeatable enemy. Doubt can only derail you if you choose to let it.
6. You risk alienating your loved ones.
Not everyone in your family or friends circle will appreciate what you write, especially if it’s a topic that makes them uncomfortable or may include a piece of their life story. Fewer things cause writers conflict quite like being compelled to write something they fear may upset someone they love.
You can seek your loved one’s blessing, but in the end, you have to make the choice between remaining true to your art or protecting someone’s feelings.
At times, I have chosen to protect. To be honest, though, when I have chosen to remain true, the resulting piece was far more impactful.
7. The biggest advantage is discipline, not talent.
Plenty of talented people waste their gift. Talent will take you only so far. Part of honing your writing craft is teaching yourself to prioritize writing and do the hard, painful things to reach your goals.
Successful writers do not see discipline as an obligation but as a pathway. They value discipline.
A disciplined writer with decent talent will eventually outpace a gifted writer who is lazy.
8. You will get more rejection than acceptance.
If you believe otherwise, this isn’t the career for you, regardless how talented you are.
9. Writing is largely self-discovery.
Research is crucial when penning anything, be it a commentary or a novel, but the thing that carries your story – the emotion – comes directly from you. Without emotion, all you’ve written is a fact sheet.
It is impossible to write well without tapping into your own fears, motivations, flaws, quirks and strengths.
For instance, if you’re writing a novel, you must understand how your characters think. How they think is completely dependent on what you think they should think. In this way, their psychology is inextricably tied to your own. This connection proves to be therapeutic because it can bring to the forefront your hidden thoughts and feelings that need to be processed.
Through writing, I have been able to process through parts of my life story that were tough for me to talk about openly. Things like bitterness, grief, heartbreak, jealousy, sin and humiliation.
I have learned more about myself through developing my characters than I ever dreamed possible.
10. You will always want to learn more.
No one says it better than Ernest Hemingway: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
The longer I have been writing, the more credentials I rack up, the more I fervently believe this.
11. Finishing a book manuscript feels a lot like immense gratitude.
You’d think it would be a jubilant experience, and it certainly is – in that way an ultra-marathon runner collapses on the other side of the finish line. Sure, joy is mixed in there somewhere amid the exhaustion. But above all, she just feels grateful she made it.
12. Your words mean something to someone.
Despite it all – the frustration, the heartache, the reams of paper and the barrels of coffee – we write because we inherently believe words matter.
We are fastidious in our faith that someone, somewhere needs this exact thing we have been given to say. Someone needs to see this character who looks so much like them. Someone needs to hear the message of hope in our work. Someone needs to know they are not alone. Write for that person.
To this purpose, you have been called. Bear it well.