Last week at my writing group, one of the aspiring authors had a bit of a breakdown. She suffered from what all writers eventually go through. Her faith in her abilities was shaken, the struggle to get her story on paper seemed overwhelming, and the awful question loomed: Am I really a writer?
This rite of passage is crucial. Writing a book initially seems like fun. The potential novelist thinks, “Oh, I have stories to tell, I have a great imagination, I got an 'A' in English class in high school/college. My mother and friends say my emails are quippy, they delight in my ability to tell a good story. I'm a natural.”
The reality is the plain white sheet of paper waiting for words. The cursor on the computer becomes a throbbing curse. Minutes tick by as phrases refuse to come. The story percolating in the brain falls short in print.
“I know what I want to say, but I can't get the ideas to come out as I imagined,” one in our group complained. “I wanted to kill my husband for interrupting my flow of words,” the most mild-mannered member fumed. “I feel like I'm ignoring my children, but I'm determined to get this book written,” the young mother confessed.
Like addicts at an AA meeting, we admit we write to the detriment of other parts of our lives. Spouses get neglected and have to take on extra duties so we can get pages written and attend critique sessions. We needed our writing “fix” so badly, we went from meeting twice a month to every Friday night. Our social lives now revolve around professional organizations like Romance Writers of America and Sisters in Crime in Fresno. We show up at library events to network with published authors. We crave writing conferences and conventions, the cost be damned.
But, wanting to be a writer and being a writer are two distinctively different animals. The wannabe sees the fun, the fulfillment, the praise, the bucks. They have passion and a story to tell and probably some talent.
Real writers expect to get saddle sores from sitting in front of the computer. Their eyes go bad from staring at the screen. Coffee, a shot of brandy and dark chocolate will only keep them functioning for so long. The only exercise they get is in their fingers—if they don't get carpal tunnel first. They crave distractions, any reason to leave the ball and chain of the chair. They don't want to talk to anyone who can't empathize with their suffering.
And that, folks, it the crux of the problem. Does the world care if there is one more writer or one more book on the shelf? Not really. Is writing worth sacrificing the real people in our lives in favor of the fictional people we create? Are the rewards worth the effort? Am I really up to the task?
Writing is a choice. Nobody is standing behind us with a gun to our heads telling us to publish or perish. Writing is hard. More than just imagination and plot, good writing includes craft, strong word choices, constant editing, the illusive element called “voice,” and a thick skin. Writing is a gamble. Even the best novels often don't see publication. Writing is about going the distance, not running a sprint. Writing is not graded, except by sales. Writing demands sacrifices, and each aspiring novelist has to ask, “What am I willing to give up to reach my goal?”
I gave up housework, TV and a marriage while writing my first novel. I cleared the way to write full time by forfeiting what others consider necessities: relationships, a social life and a steady income. I live in a bathrobe surrounded by cats unable to complain to the neighbors when I kick them outside so I can write. A balanced diet is TV dinners, smoothies and chocolate. My yard work goes neglected and housework is negligible. I live like a spinster and don't have time for bad habits, except biting my nails when I'm working on deadline. Do I feel this life is what I want? Absolutely. I'm living my dream.
But, that's my story. My writing group gave the aspiring author empathy and a tissue to wipe away tears and years of frustration. Her life is full of overwhelming obstacles, yet I know she'll show up next Friday night ready for more criticism. Last week she had a breakdown--next week, perhaps a breakthrough.