A couple of months ago, a teenage writer left a comment on Roz Morris’s blog, asking how she could afford an editor. She* didn’t want to get a job, because that would take away from her writing time, and she didn’t want to go to college, because she didn’t want to kill her creativity by writing term papers. Her question spurred a side conversation in the comments where we gently corrected her impression that “real” writers spent all their time writing.
Those of us who write know that the vast majority of writers have day jobs. We often spend time working on things we don’t want to do. Sometimes our day jobs even involve writing “boring” things, like technical manuals or advertising copy.
In the comments, Roz pointed out that our writing is often helped by doing something else:
“[Non-writing time] doesn’t kill our creativity – in fact the enforced time away from the desk is good thinking time, which any novel needs in spades.”
The rest of us added our advice:
Nikki McCormack: “Creativity is a small fraction of what it takes to be a successful author. If this is how you want to make your living, then get out there and live life. Get a job. Learn a skill (or many). The more you learn and experience, the better your writing will be. Understanding life and the people around you helps you relate better to your readers and that is critical to being successful.
Your creativity is yours. It is your first ingredient to writing. Now you need to go out and get more ingredients. Think of everything you do and everything you learn as a step along the path to being a better writer, not an obstacle to your creativity.”
Me (Jami Gold): “If you want to really feel like your studies are adding to your writing and not taking away, think about the kind of stories you want to write. Someone who wants to write murder mysteries would find any kind of career in law enforcement invaluable–not just cops, but even those who work behind the scenes, filing paperwork or evidence, would see and hear things to round out their stories. I know of nurses who take that knowledge to write murders that look like suicides, and they know of the ways someone could try to get away with it.
Think of counselors or working in a counseling center and how many stories they’re exposed to. I could go on and on. Figure out where your passions lie in your stories, and maybe you’ll discover a passion for something that won’t be just a paying-the-bills gig.
Plus, people with those experiences are highly sought after by other writers. Imagine being able to make extra money by teaching workshops to writers about those things you’ve learned in your day job. Life will power your writing, not take away from it.”
John Whitbourn: “[P]ick a college course that will stimulate rather than stifle you. English Literature will expose you to some great works. … Or Music, or Physics, or Philosophy – lots of subjects are actually rather good for the creative imagination.
Anne R. Allen: “A college education certainly doesn’t stifle creativity. Creative writing classes can do that if they’re badly taught, but studying history and art and literature and science can only open up your mind. It’s a rare author indeed who can be successful without basic cultural literacy.
An editor can’t teach you how to write–no matter how much you pay. Grammar and word use are an author’s tools. You wouldn’t try to earn a living as a carpenter if you didn’t know how to pound a nail–and you wouldn’t hire somebody else to do it for you.
Learn your trade. Get the tools and skills you need. Enjoy the process.”
Soon after that exchange, I came across a post by the excellent writing teacher Holly Lisle, emphasizing the writer’s need for experience. I love her quote:
“If you have never lived, how are you going to write characters that live?”
I hung on to those links because I thought they said something important about the expectations we place on ourselves as writers. That if we don’t get x number of words on a page, the day was wasted. That if we’re not able to make enough from writing to quit our day job, we’re somehow a failure. That if we could write full-time, our life would be perfect.
Yes, it’s true that we need to protect our writing time. If we don’t make time for our writing, no one else will. But ensuring we get some writing time in is different from focusing on writing to exclusion of everything else. And especially for new and/or young writers, we might be unintentionally emphasizing the wrong things by talking only about the importance of writing time.
Last week, I spent a fair number of hours giving advice to another teenage writer, who had written to me off my blog. He was looking for help on how to deal with his parents, as they had forbidden him from working on his story about depressed and disturbed characters. He’s not depressed and he has a happy home life, so he wasn’t looking for advice on how to argue with them so much as how to explain his writing to them.
I’ve been there, with the upset school and the freaked out parents, so I empathized with his plight. As a teenager, I felt misunderstood. I wondered if I’d done something wrong by listening to my characters and following my muse. The experience contributed to me not writing again for years and years.
But as an adult, I could understand his parents’ worry that his writing was a cry for help. So I gave him suggestions on how to share his creativity with his parents in ways that wouldn’t freak them out, and I explained that whether we writers like it or not, dark thoughts/writing is listed on all those “prevent suicide and drug use” public service announcements. And it’s there for a reason. It can be a sign of trouble.
His parents probably assumed the characters in his story were him (we can all sympathize because people are always assuming we are our characters). They’d probably heard stories about kids who are insular and reserved going bad and shooting up places. Things like that have happened, and they don’t want to be the parents who lose their child because they ignored or blew off the “warning signs.”
Then I made sure he also understood the bigger picture:
“Besides, there’s plenty of work you can do to improve your writing skills until you are on your own. In other words, the time won’t be wasted. … Yes, it’ll suck to have to wait in order to write whatever you want, but you’ll be improving your skills…
Maturing also means recognizing that you can’t always do what you want when you want to do it. … I don’t get to write nearly as much as I’d like, and when I do have time to write, I often have blog posts or beta reading promises to work on…
[Y]ou have a choice here. Some people would mope or act out. Others would grab the opportunity to improve their craft. … Use this time to make something positive out of the situation. And as long as you don’t let this experience prevent you from writing for a long time (like what happened to me), you will get through this as a stronger writer than before.”
For those of us juggling day jobs, demanding bosses, spouses, kids, car pools, ballet classes, and piano lessons, we do need to be vigilant about protecting our writing time. But all our blog posts emphasizing writing time might lead newbie writers, especially when they’re young, to focus on writing at the expense of living.
Writing is just the first step toward being a good writer. So let’s share ideas about the non-writing things writers, especially new and/or young ones, can do that will help them become better writers in the long run.
How can writers improve their craft outside of creative writing classes? What non-writing skills should writers have? What classes or life experiences can help us write deeper characters, better plots, or tighter pacing? How has your day job or non-writing life helped you be a better writer?
* Note: I don’t actually know if the young writer on Roz’s blog was male or female, but I chose to stick with she/her in the post for simplicity’s sake.Pin It