I am a writer. If you’ve seen Wonder Boys, you might groan in response to such a statement, filled as it is with a mixture of pretension and self-aggrandizement, but it is undoubtedly and unashamedly true. I am a writer.
Granted, I’m not a particularly successful one, but I write, and therefore, I’m a writer. In my life I’ve met dozens, if not hundreds, of wannabe writers, and I’m often asked how to become a writer, as though there is some secret formula to making all your dreams come true. There isn’t. It’s startlingly easy to be a writer.
The only thing that separates a wannabe writer from a real writer is that real writers write.
So many times I’ve seen people in cafes with their laptops on the table in front of them, chatting away as the cursor flashes unnoticed on the screen; so many times I’ve been drawn into conversations about three-act structure and character arcs and pivot points and the hero’s journey; so many times I’ve heard people introduce themselves as writers, as though they’re James Joyce or Graham Greene; and so rarely have I ever met anybody who actually writes.
It seems so simple to me. From the age of four, when my favourite programme was The Littlest Hobo, I started telling people that when I was older, I was going to write books. Then, when I was eight, I started typing out stories on my mother’s old typewriter, telling people that when I was older, I was going to write books. And then when I was twelve, I had an epiphany – I was already older, so what was I waiting for?
The Case of the Samurai Kidnapper was the first ‘book’ I wrote, a 32-page abomination about a ninja assassin and the husband-and-wife FBI agents hunting him down. I followed this with a novella about a platoon commander in the Union Army during Sherman’s march through Dixieland, and then an adventure story about an archaeologist discovering an ancient conspiracy to hide advanced technology from the world at large. It didn’t matter that they were awful – they were the first tentative steps towards my goal and they taught me a truth that has served me well all my life:
Wannabe writers talk about writing; real writers write.
The fact is, it’s easy to talk about writing. It’s easy to sit around and think about writing, to work out the details of character and plot, research your setting, establish your theme. What’s really difficult, and what so few wannabe writers actually do, is sit down and write.
Because writing is hard. It takes discipline and commitment. It’s thankless and it’s lonely. You get stuck inside your head and the white screen mocks you. Everyone else is heading out to parties or lying asleep in bed while you’re sitting at your desk hammering out the finer points of something nobody might ever read. You take jobs that aren’t too taxing so you can write in your spare time. You put the kids to bed then write into the wee small hours, knowing each moment of lost sleep will make tomorrow that much harder. But you do it anyway, because you are a writer, and that’s what it takes.
I worked out a few years ago that in the fifteen years since leaving school I’d written over two-million words of creative writing. I’ve written eight full-length novels and half-written countless others, completed two non-fiction books, hundreds of short stories and several screenplays. This amounts to tens of thousands of hours of effort and sacrifice, practice and false starts, improvement and editing, success and failure.
If you want to be a writer, the only thing you have to do is write.
A lot of wannabe writers make excuses about their lack of output. Everyone knows someone who says they’re going to write a book some day – well why not today? Many people claim they lose interest and can’t finish anything they start – well if you want to be a writer, you have to keep working on it. And the worst thing of all, so many people say they don’t have the time to write – but there is always time to write, if you truly want to.
I read a great line somewhere that I think is very true, something like: ‘If you don’t write when you don’t have the time, you won’t write when you do.’ Who cares if there are dishes in the sink? Go and write. Who cares if the lawn needs mowing? Go and write. You need to motivate yourself to write whenever and wherever you can squeeze it in, or else you never will.
You have to be committed, disciplined, obsessive, sometimes selfish and maybe even a little mad to be a writer, but that’s the lesson for all wannabe writers out there: how do you stop wishing and turn your dreams of being a writer into reality? In one easy step.
Real writers write.