My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Want to be a writer? Earn your "Er"

All the people who wanted to be a writer in my high school.
1993 only.  
Want to be a writer?  Earn your "er."

When I was earning my amazingly useful and in no way pointless Creative Writing degree at SFSU, Janusprof liked to use the phrase "earning your 'er'" to describe the simplicity involved in achieving what so many of the program's fresh-faced members wanted (to be a writer).  It was as simple as earning your "er." I always liked the turn of phrase and so in the tradition of great artists (and Janusprof's direct advice), I'm going to steal it.  

See, I did learn something!

There are a lot of aspiring writers in the world. I don't mean that like there are a lot of doctors or a lot of redheads. I mean there are so many aspiring writers that they make legions look like cozy get togethers, and it is entirely possible that if they could all somehow be gathered together, armed, and trained, that they would be so numerous as to make getting involved in a land war in Asia lose its spot as the most famous classic blunder (to be immediately replaced by going up against a Sicilian when death is on the line).  

Go ahead.  

Look around.

Maybe you'll notice a couple here and there...

I don't often spend emotional energy judging who is "worthy" being called a writer or not, but every once in a while it's useful to speak (in very broad and general terms, not to anyone person specifically) about how common it can be for folks to want to be a writer, but not read. And perhaps defying even more comprehension, to want to be a writer, but not write.
Lots of people want to be a writer. The girl who did really well in English class in high school.  The guy who liked to tell stories to his friends.  The gal who thinks her troubled teens are a story that everyone would be interested in because she got drunk a lot, tried heroin, and had a couple of threesomes.  The guy who sees writing books as a more "realistic" way into Hollywood and the director's chair than being a screenwriter.  The woman who won a short story contest back in junior high. They rarely read. They never right. Yet they are sure their memoirs will coast right to the bestseller list even if they never did anything more exciting than manage Denny's through the post-World Series rush with a broken frier. The legions endless are those who ever thought, "holy fucking archbishop balls, this thing I just thought of would make a good story," is probably harboring the fantasy of smithing words and cobbling them together.

And not all aspiring writers are just casually noodling a desultory fantasy either. Dig through those "aspiring writers," and you'll find many (oh dear GOD, so many) who are taking aspiration to the next level. They burn to be a writer. They yearn. They want it more than anything. It's their childhood dream and their adult goal. They dream about it what life will be like once they get there. They fantasize. They consider everything they do to be a temporary stop on the road to writerdom. Just as soon as they write that book, they will hit the bestseller list and make it big. Their ship is coming in. Life happens to them while they're busy making all their writerly plans.  

Dig through those dreamers, and you will find another strata. People who think they are writers....even though they don't really write (and a surprising number don't read either). They call themselves writers and are perpetually a single get-off-their-ass moment away from greatness. They tell social networks they're writers, and list "writer" as their job on Facebook.  

Among those, you can find an even higher pretentious strata: those actively pretending to be writers. They network. They market. They meet and greet. They do drinks. They work the writer world like an ex vice president trying to score a speaking gig. They just don't get much writing done--and who could write with a schedule that busy. Oddly enough (or perhaps not really), none of these behaviors really fools anyone unless the person is actually earning their "er" instead of making excuses. They may insist that they are writers, but the world doesn't really agree.

This is a disconnection that isn't found in many arts. People who haven't played an instrument since high school band don't call themselves musicians and dream of the philharmonic. Couch potatoes don't insist they are dancers and dream of Broadway. Aspiring painters don't comparison shop potential galleries and rub elbows with patrons before they've actually painted anything. And while there are plenty of garage bands destined for nothing more than a tragic break up when their first member gets a real job, has a kid, or sleeps with another member's partner they at least dream of grandeur while practicing twice a week. Only aspiring actors even come close to the hope of success-before-work that aspiring writers display so brazenly. So if it helps you put this behavior in perspective, imagine the starry-eyed Iowa farm boy getting off the bus in Hollywood who hasn't done so much as local theater since high school and hopes to be discovered.

That's what most aspiring writers are acting like. And in the writing biz you can't even get empty promises made to you by sleazy a-holes on the casting couch.

I can be such a fucking killjoy, can't I?

I'm not one to throw around the word "pretentious" very often. It smacks of elitism and judgement that I, Chris, do not get to make about anyone....except maybe me. And lord knows most writers struggle enough with imposter syndrome that I don't need to run around giving that shit health and mana potions.

2100 Articles, Chris. A career. Millions of readers. You're a really real writer!
But no book, so obvi that's all lies.

I don't want you throw down your pen in dejection and quit the field. I'm telling you this because there are two kinds of motivational messages in this world. There's the motivational messages that business seminars pay top dollar, given by those who publish bestseller after bestseller, and who sell their CD's in a singularly epic display of just how unremarkable it is for people to enjoy (and even pay for) things that make them feel good. And if you want some white, cis, heterosexual, able bodied, upper class, probably Christian, American male to tell you that you can do anything you set your mind to, go for it. I mean they manage not to laugh at the irony as YOU PAY THEM to tell you that if they can get rich off of you, anything is possible. So if you're cool with the idea that you can unlock the secrets of the universe by keeping a day planner and thinking good thoughts, by all means tune out everything but their fluffy brand of rainbow-shooting, unicorn-splooge positivism.  

It's not all bad, after all. We all need to be reminded that we've let non-priorities slip into our lives once in a while and that figuring out what we actually want to achieve really is the first step in success. And you can walk away from these messages determined to actualize your visualization with a spring in your step.  If you want to think that is all there is to success and get mad at anyone who dares harsh your moti-fucking-vational squee, that's your choice. But let me be honest, you're missing at least half the story.

At the motivational tools stores,
we've been making the best motivational tools since 1000 B.C.E.
Get one in your rectum today and unlock your hidden potential!
There's also the well-needed boot in your ass motivation that you ALSO shell out top dollar for–especially when you want actual results. If you hire a personal trainer, they do not tell you that if you imagine a fit body and write down your goals, fitness will not happen because you will it into being with positive actualization of your will-chi. They do not sell you some CDs or a day planner filled with the motivational quotes of physically fit athletes. They might ask you about your goals for about five minutes, so they can plan how best to get you to your finish line. Then they stick something heavy in your hand and tell you to do something unpleasant in three sets of 10-15. They do this for an hour, and when you think you are about to die, they tell you to come back in a couple of days. And, if you had certain goals, they tell you that if they see you anywhere near a fast food joint, that you'll spend your next session doing an extra set...and five extra reps...with a fifty pound barbell shoved up your ass. And you don't walk out the door with a spring in your step and an uplifted heart so much as you stumble out relieved that you cheated death by ducking today's scythe swipe.

But you see results in five weeks.

I take a lot of crap when I bring out the boot. People don't like the boot. People want to buy the 20 CD set and be told there's nothing they can't do, and that they're awesome, and that there's nothing between them and the fantasy fulfillment but cotton candy clouds, sugarcane fields, pixie/mermaid orgies, and maybe some token mention of work that will happen in a power-chord montage and won't ever actually be difficult. No one wants to face the truth about earning their "er." Not if it means telling the Tinkerbell fairies flitting about their fantasy to stop "practice kissing" and get lost so some actual work can happen.

So wait just a second before you go saying: "That Chris is just such a fucking assburger with asspickles and assmustard next to a bed of assfries drenched in assketchup for pointing out that there are a lot of people who want to be writers. How could he do such a thing? Why does he insist on spewing his stupid factually facty facts every time I'm doing my super-duper dream stretching exercises (where I reach for the stars)? Doesn't he have any respect for my artistic ambition?" And wait just a second before you go looking for the validation of the internet that you're totally entitled to have your dreams come true just because they're yours. Wait just a second before you change the channel to the warm fuzzy messages that acknowledge how fragile your crystalline ego can be.  

Yes, I'm the bastage with the boot headed for your southernmost sphincter at ramming speed. I'm the one who killed your leprechaun on MDMA who was doing the Macarena to Celine Dion's dulcet vocalizations about belief in the heart going on. I'm the one telling you that your desire to be a famous writer is only slightly less common than brown hair.  

But I'm not doing that to make you feel common or make you give up. In fact, I'm here to tell you how to leave all those "aspiring writers" with their fantasy dreams and their actualized artistic visions, but who can't seem to get what they want out of their writing life, behind. I'm telling you how to actually make yourself extraordinary. 

Aspirations are a dime a dozen. In fact, they aren't even a dime a dozen--you can get a fifty pack for a nickel if you're willing to buy them in boxes of a thousand at Costco. You know how many people have a great idea for a book? ALL OF THEM. Every. Single. One. (Except R. Pete. He has ideas for books, but none of them are great.) But actually doing something difficult, day in and day out, sets you apart almost instantly from those who only aspire.

The number of fucks the world gives–flying or otherwise–about what you aspire to do is best expressed with a negative integer. If give-a-shit for your aspiration were measured on a scale from the floor to the moon, it would barely clear the fibers of your carpet. (And not even that if you have shag.) If you aspire to scratch your nose, but just talk about how much it itches all goddamned day long, people are going to start to treat you like you're a very special caliber of jerkwad, and this is exactly what most aspiring writers do. The only way to distinguish yourself from an ocean of other aspiring writers is to write. Ditch the "aspiring" and earn your "er." Until and unless you execute the verb "to write" you aren't really a writer. 

Maybe you're a dreamer, dreaming of writing.    

Maybe you're a talker, talking about writing.

Maybe you're a networker, networking all the people in the writing world.

Maybe you're a marketer, finding the markets for future work.

Maybe you're a drinker, having drinks with editors, publishers, or other writers.

Maybe you're a performer, performing to an audience.

None of those things is writing. But until and unless you earn your "er" for the verb "to write" before all of these other things, you are not a writer. Stop dreaming about writing, stop talking about writing, stop thinking about writing.....and just write.  

So cry your bitter artist tears that you seem to believe are (to me) the sweet corporeal ambrosia of your silly dreams shattering and will sustain my body long after my mortal time has lapsed on this world. Get it out of your system. And when you're done wiping those thick runners of snot from your nose, buck up, put on your big kid underpants, and face the fact that unless you want to be just like every other aspiring writer crawling over the Earth like the eleventh plague of Moses, it's time to earn your "er."

Do not despair now, fair writers. For we come to the other side of this equation. (And unlike the "other side of water," this shit is actually pretty sweet.)

If you write...you ARE a writer. And don't let the world tell you otherwise. I don't care if you're a multi-bestseller novelist or an every-other-day updater on Tumblr. If you write, you're a writer. The world can go fuck themselves, and in the final analysis it will be the aspiring writers, not me, who will do their level best to try to tear you down and keep you from proving it's possible to do what they won't. If you're earning your "er," you are a writer. Maybe not published. Maybe not rich. Maybe not even GOOD. Always in need of improvement (for we all are). Foolish if you don't take every opportunity to improve your craft. Foolisher still if you don't read...critically...as often as you can. Likely in need of many more steps before "success" (whatever that means). But you ARE a writer. You have earned your "er." Let the snobs and the dilettantes alike talk about doing what you actually do.  Let them suck your ink spill.

You have earned your "er."

And when you have earned your "er," you are a writer. And no one can tell you otherwise.


  1. I aim to please. Most writers need a careful balance of motivational messages and rigorous ass kickings.

  2. Well said, and goddamned important to heed! Boot away, Chris, boot away.

    1. Thus spake Molly. And the boot didst invadest the nether-regions by her word. Verily.

  3. I often call myself a "wordsmith" rather than a "writer", 'cause I don't take my writing all that seriously. ;)

    1. That seems a fair distinction. To be honest, I've always respected how you get excited about actually writing stuff and keep your wits about you as regards the potential. I've thought more than once that I need to be more like you. :)

    2. I'm flattered. (No, I'm not yanking your chain!) :)

  4. "factually facty facts"
    I have to use this in my next argument with Ryan. When he accuses me of making up words I'm going to whip out your blog and say, "I'm quoting!" Like a child.
    Chris, you made my day. Thank you. Excellent article.

    1. Glad I could help you in your quest for petulance, and thank you for the wonderful words. :)

  5. Hope MCD doesn't get upset that you took this.

    1. Given how often he told us to steal ideas (and the fact that I didn't actually plagiarize his actual words), I'm guessing he'll be okay that I've...ahem....BORROWED his idea.

      It really is a good idea.

    2. Good points. Well, written!

  6. Im going to be honest and admit that I don't like the boot, but I sure as hell need it. Thanks!

  7. How will I know... when I've earned my "er"? Will it come in weeks, months, years?