How To Be A Writer

Portrait of the artist
Photo by Kalindy.

“My dream and the only thing I’ve ever really been in interested in is being a writer. Many many people have tried to discourage me from doing this, but it’s my passion! I was wondering if you had any advice?”

Those of us who want to making a living from the arts often come up against opposition. “You’ll starve!”, your parents cry. “You’ll be miserable!”, your grandmother warns. “No one ever makes a living from that“, your guidance counsellor cautions. While all of this can be intensely demotivating — hell, sometimes it’s enough to push us into law school! — there is something important that we need to consider when anyone tells us we can’t or shouldn’t do something.

When people talk to us, they are speaking from their belief system. They can’t help it, that’s just what happens, & none of us are immune. Whenever I write an article, I, too, am writing based on my beliefs & experiences. I suppose the problem is that all of us, in some area, have beliefs that are destructive, untrue or just plain wacky. Some people think that everyone is out to hurt them. Others believe that working an awful job under a tyrannical manager is the only way to earn a living. Some have the idea that life is a graceless series of embarrassments. You get my drift.

When we listen to what people say, we often do so in an unbiased manner. We take their words at face value. If someone you respect tells you that writers never make any money, that artists always live in rat-infested hovels, or that musicians at age 45 look back at their life & feel ashamed, it can be easy to believe them. Everything else they say makes sense, so why shouldn’t that?

Really, if someone had told me five years ago that I would soon be making a living from taking pictures of myself, dressing up & receiving amazing emails all the time, I would have laughed. Five years ago I was locked into the reality of working a miserable job & feeling like that was the only way. But the point is that the world is changing, faster than we think it is. Opportunities are spinning our way all the time. It’s up to us whether we act on them, or even see them in the first place. We can choose to live a life that scares & delights us, or we can choose to allow someone else’s view of the world to control us.

It is true that it is more difficult to “make a living” writing than it is to “make a living” by going to an office every day. As a writer, you are in charge of yourself. You will require discipline, passion & drive, as well as a willingness to put yourself out there, repeatedly, regardless of the knock-backs you might receive. You will receive your money in small dribbles at unusual times, & you will need to work out how to manage it so that you can live properly without fishing for coins in the couch for the last two weeks of the month. Going to work in an office is much easier — all you need is a bus pass, & as long as it looks like you’re working, you will probably be paid pretty regularly. But you have to ask yourself, is it worth it? If your passion is elsewhere, I encourage you to follow that.

A lot of people play it safe & work a regular job while churning out freelance pieces in their spare time. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this — in fact, I did it myself for years! I used to write for magazines in New Zealand, & it was a lot of fun. The pay wasn’t much (50 cents a word, I think), but seeing my name in print totally did it for me, & years later, one of the articles I wrote is required reading for a university paper.

There are plenty of ways to make money from writing, some of which include selling your soul, though not all. You can dabble in journalism, copywriting, write scripts & jingles, sell short stories, run a blog, write a novel or become a columnist. You can write movie reviews, recipes or crosswords. You might like to take up editing for fun & profit. You can do all of these or a combination or just one.

I think that the best thing to do, if you want to be a writer, is decide that you are one. Even if it’s not what you do eight hours a day, give yourself that title. Then devote yourself unrelentingly to your craft. “I have no time” is not an excuse — if something is truly important to you, you make time. So start to make time to write. When I worked in an office, I used to write on the bus on the way to work, on my breaks, on the way home & all evening — & I filled notebooks quickly. It can be done!

Work out what you might like to do. If you want to get into journalism or editing or scriptwriting or novel writing, investigate those areas. Consider taking a course — most universities & even community centres have classes that can help you. Think about it some more. Set yourself some goals. Write. Join your regional writer’s society, go to their events & introduce yourself to people. Buy good pencils or a beautiful typewriter. Put your writing online somewhere. Practise, practise, practise. Buy a dictionary. Write. Read a thesaurus. Write. Carry a Moleskine everywhere. Try different styles — write romantic haiku & limericks for your friends. Make notes about people you see. Approach editors & ask them if you could submit an article to their magazine (they always need writers). Find an agent. Meet people who will support you. Work hard. Make time. Write.

How To Be An Artist by SARK

In the process of doing this, you will discover a lot about yourself. You will learn what you’re good at, & what needs work. You will become familiar with writer’s block & you’ll find out what kind of music encourages your best writing. You might also find that your writing tastes change. I always used to be a fiction girl, taking scraps of my life & twisting them into something more romantic or glamorous. But now I like to conjure pearls of light & truth, & I don’t have any time or interest in writing stories. So it goes.

If you’re writing full time, it can get a little lonely. I am blessed in that my boyfriend & I both work from home, so we have each other’s company — but it can get a little mind-numbing being alone all day. Get out of the house, go to a cafe, join a club, ride your bike every morning, engage the postman in conversation, sing in the street, read books. Make a schedule for yourself. Wake up early, do your morning pages, have a coffee, & start writing. Write until noon, have a shower, have some lunch, write some more. Go to the library, buy fresh fruit, make dinner, write some notes, go to sleep.

My two favourite books on writing are Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott & Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I adore both of them. They are beautifully-written (as you would expect) & are full of writing prompts & superb vignettes. You might also like to flick through The Artist’s Way, The Right To Write & The Writer’s Life, all by Julia Cameron; On Writing by Stephen King; Woman In Front Of The Sun by Judith Ortiz Cofer; 30 Steps to Becoming a Writer by Scott Edelstein; The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out Of The Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman & On Writing Well by William K. Zinsser.

Of course, there are a lot of great resources online, too. Bookmark hack your way out of writer’s block, how to conquer writer’s block — the ultimate guide & 101 ways to brew up a great idea, if you know what’s good for you!

Sometimes our parents & friends try to dissuade us from doing things because they think it will be difficult, & they don’t want to see us in pain. That is considerate but ultimately harmful. It prevents us from growing & learning about the world on our own terms. Sometimes, by trying to protect us, people accidentally crush our dreams or ambitions. But only you know who you are & what is best for you. It is harder to stay true to yourself than it is to take the well-travelled road — but it is miles more satisfying.

Living life on your own terms is the best revenge, but don’t do it out of vengeance — just choose to be unaffected & authentic & true. Dare to make your life your own, to go against the grain, to create your own reality. Spin gold from the words in your head & know that you are contributing, you are helping, you are changing people’s lives.