Shaista Justin

Why You Shouldn’t Take Time Off to be a Writer (And Writer Litmus Test)

In Uncategorized on February 7, 2011 at 3:40 am

Beyond the norm of reasonable lateness (15min for a friend, no more than 5min for business), I raced out the door, after waking and then falling asleep for the second time yesterday morning due to my epic sinus cold, and arrived 40 minutes late to meet up with an old university acquaintance (thanks again Facebook). Luckily the friend too had been late and was still sipping her latte when I stormed into the cafe like a tree uprooted by a tornado and thrown through the window. I may have been wearing the previous night’s lipstick. I could no longer remember which morning I was in. This forced me to be more congenial than normal.

It’s true that I occasionally like to pry into the lives of almost total strangers and dispense advice. (I don’t ask my close friends anything about themselves; I think it’s rude). That is why I’m writing a blog after all. And this particular post? I’m writing this so that I can in future refer others to it instead of repeating myself like the refrain of a pop song that never made the top 40 charts and ends up as the theme of a frozen bagel commercial. Say what you will, frozen bagels are not a good thing (unless they are from Montreal).

So, I didn’t remember said friend being as likeable as she turned out to be, and she said she didn’t remember me as particularly bright and was equally delighted to be wrong (touche!). Then she bought us a chocolate cupcake with pink frosting and we split it down the middle and really became friends. During this happy reassessment, my new-old friend confided that in the near future she was planning to take 6 months off to write a book of fiction. As if I needed any more reverberation in my achy sinuses, alarm bells started to clang like crazy…or, as in comic-book parlance, my spidey senses were tingling. But, instead of changing the subject or looking at my watch hoping for an easy exit (remember, I was guilty of lateness and feeling congenial)…I recounted a list of questions for “the-life-of-a-writer-flirt” that I save for this common occasion. (And yeah, may-be I also care about her, and you, my reader).

My Litmus Test for Whether or Not You Are a Writer

  1. How long have you been writing? (I don’t mean: when did you learn your letters? I mean creatively smart-ass).
  2. How often do you write?
  3. Have you had anything published?
  4. Have you taken any writing courses?
  5. Have you had professional feedback on your work?
  6. What did the professional say?
  7. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Why?
  8. Why do you want to be a writer now?
  9. Do you know that writers don’t make any money? Especially poets? (Are you great at marketing?)
  10. Do you know what the life of a writer is like?

Here are the correct answers to the above questions:

  1. As long as I can remember.
  2. Everyday.
  3. Yes.
  4. Yes.
  5. Yes.
  6. I have a long career ahead of me and should “run-not-walk” to publishers with my work.
  7. As long as I can remember. Life without words and storytelling is meaningless to me. Writing is not a choice, it’s a compulsion.
  8. See above.
  9. Haha! You’re funny, I have a day job which pays the rent. Are you crazy? And, yes, my 2nd cousin is a marketing whiz.
  10. Lonely, miserable, competitive. But, I have close family, friends, and don’t measure my self-worth by my writing or other arbitrary achievements. I write because I must, that is all.

If you answered correctly (more or less), then my apologies, you are already on your path of immortal writer hell. If not, then read on.

Now, some successful writers will argue with me about these responses and some will point out the exception to the rule where someone, somewhere, who was an accountant, and had never written a day in his life, suddenly popped up and wrote a bestseller. I’m not buying it. Writing is a craft and a profession. You can bet the farm that Susan Boyle didn’t just wake up one morning with a glorious voice! And when you are ready to submit a book, publishers, agents, and granting boards also want to know the answers to questions 3-6.

I’m not sure where the idea came from, that to be a successful writer you should suddenly quit your day job to write a novel full-time (especially when you haven’t published before), but I want to call Myth-Busters and ask them to get to the bottom of it. It’s one of the most destructive lies I’ve ever heard.

Very, very, very, few writers write full-time for a living, and even they have a hard time shackling themselves to a keyboard for longer than a few hours a day. There’s a lot of puttering going on between chapters. (Hence, the depressive-writer-syndrome.) And only a handful make enough money from their books to accomplish this in the first place (see: Margaret Atwood or Stephen King). Most “successful” writers cobble together teaching, editing, and bartending to have time for their writing. In which case, how is having a full-time job and writing in the evenings any different time-wise?

You don’t take time off to write to discover whether or not you’re a writer. You take your best piece of writing and see if anyone will bother to publish it.

I put that in bold so that you won’t ignore those words.

The poverty-stricken writer as a romantic figure must die its cultural death. There is nothing romantic about poverty unless you’ve never experienced it.

I’m not sure if writers are born or made. I suspect some combination of the two, plus a whole lot of dedication thrown in. You need: storytelling talent, writing skill, obsessive reading, a unique perspective, and disciplinary masochism to be a writer. I didn’t say, to be a “good” writer either. Just, to be a writer. Sound appetizing? No? Good. Find something else to do, and enjoy your life instead.

Of course, I tried to be gentle with my new-old friend as I blasted forth the content of this post to her. The analogy I used was “being in love.” You should “know” if you’re a writer or not. Just like, you should “know” if you’re in love or not. If you have doubts, about the writing, or the love affair, give yourself some time to find out, but don’t quit your day-job while you’re doing it.

If you are a writer, nothing will stop you from being one. If you’re not, everything will stand in the way.

Shaista Justin

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  1. Dam, and I just gave up my day job! 😦

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