Sunday, July 13, 2008

I’m not a real writer – and other grand delusions

(Warning: long post. I know, search engines won't like the title either.)

The Prelude

Jamie, at How Not to Write, made this comment reply about real writing: “I think as long as I pretend it isn’t writing I can do it. Once I acknowledge the fact that it is real writing, the whole thing goes to hell.”

Most reading here can identify with that sentiment and have probably done or said something similar at some point. We dream about being writers with agents, and publishers, and deadlines, and compensation to show for it. However, many of us are (have been) plugging away at blogs, journals, short story contest entries and what have you. Yet we carefully avow that what we are doing isn’t real writing.

The Beginning; or, the (near) tragedy

Just over a year ago an opportunity opened with the local paper (a regular 6 days a week paper) to apply for one of the community correspondent slots to write a weekly neighborhood-based column. It would mean writing about church suppers and Eagle Scouts and so forth. Did I initially see it from that perspective; no. I argued that they wouldn’t think I was serious because I had too much education. Okay, I choked. But then the rational lobe pointed out that a year before, after reading Letters to a Young Journalist (Freeman, 2006) which rekindled the journalism flame of high school and early college, I had written in my Goal’s Journal “What stands in the way of becoming – being – a journalist? Make a list.”

Most things on my list were that my skills, tools, and references were pretty old, which could be remedied with a little effort; two things could not be easily dismissed and Freeman addressed them both. The first was “I will have to do something scary” which Freeman counters with “do what scares you.” The second was “I have to do it perfectly and I’m not there yet” to which Freeman offers that everybody has a story killed (or rewritten); tomorrow is another assignment, another chance to prove yourself (paraphrased). So I jumped in, for a while.

Yes, despite my written goals, and support system, and the fact that it was real writing published for 5000-6000 potential readers; after 30 days I wrote a letter of resignation and quit. I didn’t see that coming either but it happened. I blogged about it at the time from my limited perspective, which was that I was struggling to get stories and the first four columns ended up being little more that a calendar of events that the paper already published everyday. The editor and publisher indicated they were fine with it but I wasn’t fine with it because I had a BA in Communication, had actually take journalism classes, and had actually written for a paper as a student in the past.

Several things worked together to precipitate that action. 1) My professional ego got in the way of learning a specialty. 2) I did not realize how difficult this was going to be for me, more so than for the others who were long-time residents with no training expectations. 3) And to paraphrase Seth Godin, I interpreted The Dip that follows breaking-in as an indication of no talent and a brick wall to keep me personally out. It was easy at first to take the shtick that I could play at writing but I was a flop at real writing; and I wallowed in it for about a week.

The Redemption; or, the rest of the story

A few days later I was trying not to read the paper (to see if I had been replaced yet). It was sitting in the day’s mail stack behind me. The rational voice started whispering “you walked away from the only game in town and really you’re miserable.” I did the logical thing; I ignored it. The next day I got an email notice from Poynter Online about free courses. I also ignored that. What was hard to ignore though, and got harder every passing day, was the question “How did I do this before and why couldn’t I do it now when people with no training seem to be doing fine?

What I had done was the typical writerly thing of taking on the known pain of quitting and thus failing as a writer over the unknown pain of looking stupid and failing as a writer. But the heart hadn’t stopped desiring to write, meaning write for the paper. So after another few days the heart suggested just looking at the course offerings because an answer to the question “what went wrong” might emerge. (Yeah right, like that was going to happen.)

The course at the top of the list (because it’s alphabetical) was “Beat Basics.” I rolled my eyes because I don’t have a beat (it’s a neighborhood) and I took this in college, but we skim it anyway to find a sub-topic about “neighborhood reporters and soft news.” Humph. Jumping to the end-of-course summary there was a statement for new reporters about being patient because being new to an area or a beat was hard work for the first year (a full year!) and just as hard was launching a new beat where there was no predecessor to debrief (paraphrased). Yep, I shot myself in the foot over something that was really considered “normal.” So I did the hard thing and asked for a second chance if the slot was still open; and the rest is history in the making.

The Point

The point of this elongated story is that I had decided what was substantial and important and newsworthy before I had even knew anything or gotten the facts or written the first draft. It was an extension of a mindset that I returned to university with and somehow failed to divest while I was there: I have to find something important and write about it. But the reality is that nothing can be judged as “substantial” or “important” or “newsworthy” until it’s written (at least drafted). It’s a lesson that, fortunately or unfortunately, I seem to have to relearn about once a month; like when a four paragraph press release fizzles out to a headshot and two paragraphs but the one-liner about a car restoration turns into 450 words and six photos about sweat and passion to create a unique memorial.

Some of you reading this (hopefully you’re still reading at this point), maybe all of you, are saying very similar things like “I want to write seriously” or “I want to figure out something substantial to write about” or “I can write for myself but I can’t even put words in a row if I admit it’s real writing.” I’m telling you it’s all real writing, but not all writing is interesting to others, or important, or publishable. Being interesting or publishable isn’t the litmus test for whether or not it’s real writing.

Those qualities that make a piece of writing interesting, important or publishable cannot be judged in advance, they can only be determined after the piece is written. And being the sole judge of the merits of your work is not profitable either so find and cultivate an array of mentors, readers, proofreaders and sensitive critics to read various things you write because having your two novels or your collection of poems sequestered on your thumb drive serves no purpose; it can’t even help you improve your vocabulary. The only thing that accomplishes is to continue the denial mantra that you’re not a real writer.


jamiegrove said...

I'm my own worst critic, but even though I get down from time to time I really do believe that all writing is real writing... even my "not writing." :)

Great post, Deb. And it's definitely *not* too long. I really enjoyed it.

G's Cottage said...

@jamiegrove - I'm glad you enjoyed it after such a long wait. And maybe some lurker will get something out of it too.

As for being your own worst critic; I think everyone who gives a hoot about what they do is their own worst critic but art types make a second (and parallel) career out of it.

Fortunately most who come here regularly do like longer reads, but I do try to break it up. Also a long read often takes some reflection time to mull over so I try not to overwhelm readers post after post with grand soul-searching expositions.