Yesterday a reader left a comment that I think opens up a very important idea, one that has meaning to all writers trying to get started, established or even paid. The comment had to do with being a “real writer.”
I think everyone who writes runs into this idea, and I think they run into it more than once in their journey to becoming “real.” Because this project of mine, this self-publication adventure, has so much to do with trying to discover what being a “real writer” means, I decided that I would examine that idea with this entry in my blog.
What is a “real writer?”
When we are young—we being those who write or want to—we want to be like the great authors of our favorite stories. We want to be writers. Real ones. For me, it was Edgar Rice Burrows, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Phillip Jose Farmer. Those were “real writers.” What being a real writer meant to me back then was getting to make stories all the time, getting to live in an adventurous world of imagination that almost never stopped. It was all fun. Back then I’d never even heard of “editing” or “publishing.” Those were non words. Concepts that did not exist. Back then “writing” meant dreaming onto a page.
I don’t imagine it is a whole lot different for other writers. Perhaps it is, but I should think, being how similar we all really are—the predictable, emoting, ape-descendent us—that the only real difference is the images in the dreams.
Eventually, if that dream-writing desire holds, we get older and find out that writing takes discipline too. We discover that wanting to write is not the same as being able to. And being able to write is not the same as doing it well. At least that's what I discovered. That is the lesson I got with my first and second novels, particularly my second (the rejection of which I wrote about in the entry on Day 1). That discovery is the point when we, or at least I, run aground of a different understanding of what it is to be a “real writer.”
Being a “real writer” quickly transformed from something nebulous and dreamy to something precise. Someone who got books published. And to do that, that someone had to be able to write in a way that some other person recognized the work as “real” writing. That's tough. Nobody wants to be judged, and nobody wants his or her fate in the hands of someone else. But that's how it works, or at least how brick and mortar publishing works. Which means, we have two choices. Make lots of grumbly noises and rely on our friends to keep telling us how good we are while we continue to hang rejection letters (or just stop sending at all), or we can get to work on our craft.
Developing craft is how we hedge our bets when it comes to getting access to distribution for our work. That can be a brick and mortar publisher, or that can be word of mouth on something we publish for ourselves. Ideally, I think most of us would like to get a brick and mortar deal.
So, here’s where it gets sticky. We all know that critics and editors don’t get it right all the time. And it’s not me squeezing sour grapes. Just read stuff that's out there. There are tons of horrific books, terrible magazine articles, movies that are so stupendously unwatchable… all things that have been published or produced, vetted by “experts” who have the official role of editors, publishers, producers etc., and are supposed to know what “good” is. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. They probably do more than they don’t. But regardless, we, the writers, have no control over them, their skills, or their perspicacity.
What we do have control over is us. That's how we improve our odds. We have to make sure our writing is as good as it can be. A lot of people self publishing right now are NOT doing this. Since I started on this project, I have looked at many, and they are not good. And this is not me being harsh or elitist. It’s a fact. A self-published book that has typos on the back cover is inexcusable. And yes, I’ve seen that. I’ve seen worse.
Which leads back to the point I want to make: craft matters. Being a real writer may or may not have anything to do with being published. But if it does have to do with that, I think it first has to do with how beautiful the language is. How good it is.
To be a real writer, I think we must all strive to perfect our craft. And yes, I just said “perfect.” As soon as we read the word, we all know that’s never going to happen. But that’s my point. We must strive for it. Always.
To be a “real writer,” at least for me at this point of my writing career, the thing that makes me “real” or not is my pursuit of craft. It’s learning and reading and the brutal discipline of going back over and over and over looking for tiny flaws in the surface or the framework of what I have made. It’s about finding different lenses to view revisions: lenses of place, of character, of voice, of sensory appeal, of overarching metaphors, of grammar… of lots of things. That’s my battle currently. I want to get it right… as in beautiful, engaging, rhythmic. All of that. I pluck adjectives and adverbs from my stories like a monkey picking nits from its troop mate. I read poetry (make myself read it, because I’m not really into it that much), so I can see what the “right” noun and the “right” verb really look like. I’m trying to absorb the greatness of so many amazing, immortal writers who came before me, before us. Trying to soak up some of what they knew how to do, just some tiny glob of it… please! For me, that’s what I have to do before I can call myself a “real writer.” I have to keep trying to get better—we have to. All of us who write. If we ever think, “Hey, I’m a real writer now,” because we have X-number of subscribers or Y-number of books, and we use that as our excuse to stop improving, we won’t be “real writers” any more. We’ll be ex real writers, or never were’s.
So, that said, I think what it really means to be a “real writer” is that. It’s to read and to write continuously, striving to improve, caring and having the discipline to make beauty out of words, beauty of language from which others can find the entrance into your dreams, your imaginary worlds, and enjoy them with you. That’s being a real writer. Hopefully from there, editors and publishers somewhere will see and help spread that joy around. But the one must come before the other. Or at least it should.