I don’t have all the answers. And quite frankly, I don’t like people that think they do. I don’t think anyone really knows much about anything. We are all just feeling around in the dark, thinking we’ve just finally found some shape that is familiar enough to hold onto, and I refuse to believe anything else. I’m not going to tell you what to do, or what not to do with your life. It’s yours. All I know is the strange outline I’ve pieced together from a relative few years in this dark place. Some things are worth sharing. I’ll let you decide.
I’m a writer because there was a time in my life where Plan A got scrapped, fast, and the decent, sensible life I thought I wanted to live revealed itself to be a nightmare to me. I’m a writer because there was a time when I couldn’t keep from walking the train tracks every Sunday night and wondering what I might do when one actually came barreling towards me. There was a time when writing a story about faeries and demons and time-traveling princesses was my only reason for staying earthside, and I’m still here, aren’t I?
I’m a writer because I’ve always just written things, like the instinct was bred into my blood, the pen put in my hand at birth. I’ve been a writer all my life, even when I didn’t know it.
What I do know is what I don’t know.
I don’t know how a writer is supposed to put away self-criticism and let the words just do their thing, even though that’s what I’ve been told since day one. I still, and probably always will, have days where I can’t shut up the voice in my head that tells me I’m not good enough and never will be. I surrender to it still.
I don’t know how to discipline myself. I’m terrible at reading, and it takes me hours to get through the number of pages others can finish in ten minutes. Sometimes I go months, even years, without writing a word. Mostly I go months, even years without reading a word.
I’ve been told that these are all big mistakes, unforgivable acts that will keep me from ever actually being a writer, or a Real Writer anyway. Here’s the thing: I’m still a writer when I’m not doing the things writers are “supposed to” do. I see the world as a writer does, I read the world as a writer would. I see my craft mirrored in every facet of the life I’ve created, whether or not I actually want to, because I love writing. And whether or not I know it, I bring that love into everything.
I’m still learning every day to recognize the details and textures of my successes, the things that differentiate what I need from what others need. There are routines I must set up and hurdles I have to see coming so that when they get here my feet are ready to spring into flight and soar over them. My process will not be the same as anyone else’s. I don’t believe success looks even remotely the same for most of us. Some people win Pulitzer prizes. Some people write one perfect sentence and celebrate the victory. All must figure out what their goals are and how they can achieve them.
There is something, however, I think I might be able to trust in.
Being a writer will never escape me. Either it has followed me, or I have followed it, every day for always. The practice is in me, good and true. Without it, I would simply not be who I am. Even when I don’t have access to my words, they always come back. Even when I have to hunt them down myself and drag them back to their place in my head and on my page. Too, there are times when I am the preyed upon, dragged by ankles, carving a path through leaves and roots and dirt with my shoulder blades. Too, there are times when I’m captured and taken away by my words, demanding I indulge them. At the end of the day, month, year, or decade, I know without a doubt that one of us will act.
These days, I am a creature respecting the unique processes that take place within me, revering them like religion and adoring them like a lover. I must make space in my life for the words I’m choosing to spend time with, and the things I have to say. I must want to spend time with my writing in the first place. If there is no joy in it, then why would I want to?
As for what I wished I knew was possible—the thing to strive for, the good place to be in—I have only one sliver of advice. Find the joy. Seek it out, wherever it is. Whatever gives you pride, whatever makes you feel accomplished or excited, whatever you’d rather be doing than literally anything else, do that. And do it often. Love it, laugh at it, let it fill you with a reason to be here. And this doesn’t just have to apply to writers. There’s nothing more sacred and willing to save than art to its artist. There’s nothing more honorable than spending your life figuring out just how to spend it, in joy and pride and contentment, that is.
I’ve cultivated a lot of shame in my very short time since deciding I really wanted to do this thing. The shame came from other writers mostly, as they lectured on how I should be doing it (or I should say, how I shouldn’t be doing it). Shame for not writing, shame for not reading, shame for reading the wrong things, shame for writing badly—or worse, getting lucky and writing well without really having to work for it—shame for writing the thing I thought everyone wanted to read, shame for writing the thing only I wanted to read…the list goes on.
Eventually those judgements piled and piled, until I was the one doing most of the heavy lifting for every condescending critic that just might cross my path. I cut my ideas down before they had even had the chance to sprout roots—before they could breach the surface of me and get that first breath of air. I critiqued first drafts with the scrutiny of a thirtieth draft, until everything my writing was not loomed like a great storm before me, its thunder cracking through every moment of peace, its rain waiting to drench every white space. I stopped writing for a long time because writing stopped being fun. It had become a reminder of everything I was not, and eventually I had convinced myself I wasn’t actually allowed to be doing this, that I hadn’t earned the title of Writer, or the right to tell the world what I needed to say. I believed I was kidding myself, by thinking I deserved to be up there with everyone else, those who had made it and done it correctly—those who had important things to say, words more eloquently spoken and experiences more interesting than mine to share.
For the better part of two years, I tortured myself with the question: if I’m really a writer, then why can’t I just…write?
But hating every word I’d ever written still made me a writer, even then. Getting stupidly excited over a simple turn of phrase made me a writer. Carrying a highlighter in my bag at all times, ready to collect and take down every delightful arrangement of words in whatever book I was carrying at the time made me a writer. Witnessing the genius of others, even when it made me insecure, made me a writer. When I sat on the sidelines and watched so many films that I forgot reality. When I read as many books as I could, just waiting for my words to start sounding like theirs. Every time I ever started a song over, just to relive the way the lyrics rolled off my tongue.
There was simply no way I could have messed it up. I was a writer, even when I was trying to convince myself not to be. But I needed to stop writing to know why I wanted to find it again.
The only remedy I’ve found to stave off the torture and torment of seeking some level of perfection that simply does not exist—is as they say with love and with happiness and with probably anything: once you stop looking for it, it will find you. And I mean truly stop looking for it. Not just peering out of one eye pretending you’re not looking for it. I mean denouncing that perfection, digging your own grave and lying down in that dirt, ready to be covered and forgotten. And maybe this is not true for everyone, but this is what was true for me. Only once I accepted that maybe, just maybe, I was worth something beyond how much I had written (if anything) and the quality of that writing, only then did I start to see that I didn’t actually need writing to feel like I had purpose and a place in this world. I was a real human being with a life I was proud to live because I had spent time in it, realizing that. Only once I didn’t need the words to define me or save me or speak for me, did I find I could greet them again as friends, and as equals.
I reached a point where I figured out how to stop faulting myself for every fallow period and for all the things I had not yet become, or even given myself the proper time to become. This is when I actually found it possible to write again—to enjoy writing again, to relish in my art and remember why I’d been drawn to it in the first place.
Because believe it or not, there’s a reason I got into this game (and it’s not for the money). I became a writer because writing gives me joy. Pure, unabridged bliss. It isn’t supposed to feel like drowning. I write because there are worlds I want to explore that my own two feet cannot carry me to, people I want to meet who don’t exist in any place but my own head. But mostly, I became a writer because I have always been taunted by the distinct possibility that maybe I have something to say.
And even if I am the only person who ever hears me say it, I still believe it is worth saying.