What Does it Mean to be a Writer

Too many writers worry about becoming “publishable” and not enough worry about honing their craft. I wonder who is to blame for this. Is it the publishing industry with its emphasis on increasing marketability and putting out the next big thing, or is it the writer who would do anything to see his or her work in print. Either way, the reading public loses in that the options to experience really good writing dwindle to just a few well-known authors, perhaps a handful of lesser-known authors, and one or two bright newcomers. Meanwhile, when one peruses the shelves at the local bookstore one sees the same old thing: rehashed plots and numerous books about teen paranormal romances gone wrong. Just this week I noticed that James Patterson, perhaps the world’s most successful author, but certainly one of the least talented, has three new books out. Three! Really? Does the man agonize over any of his sentences? Does the world need another book about vampires or zombies?

I am not attempting to take the higher ground here; I would love to see my book in print and enjoy a mass audience. I admit it, I want to publish, especially when I am browsing bookstore shelves and I see all of the really bad titles occupying the shelves. However, over the past year I have discovered that publishing does not make the writer, writing does. I spent eight months writing the draft to as yet unpublished Ghost Light, and I have been revising it for nearly a year. The first forty pages alone have gone through two-dozen or so revisions. But this is what writing is, the struggle to extract meaning and expression from somewhere deep inside the soul. It’s a spiritual quest and not necessarily a reasonable one. To put it another way, why would one spend so long working on his or her writing without the guarantee of publication? The answer is simple: because it’s what we do. There is no other choice, since those of us who write do so in order to live.

Ghost Light is my second novel. My first, Passing Strangers, was written when I was in my early twenties and working at a bookstore in upstate New York when my hours were cut after the holiday season. While I do like parts of the book, I did commit every mistake a young writer can make. Nevertheless, writing that early novel was a necessary part of my personal journey toward becoming a writer. Passing Strangers is a story about a young assistant professor of music that is desperately trying to finish a commissioned opera so that he can gain tenure. In the midst of all this he is in an unhealthy relationship with a woman who may or may not be sleeping with his therapist. In short, the novel is about a man’s search for meaning in a world so chaotic and confusing that all semblance of reality dissolves into disorder. This is not exactly an original idea, is it? But I had to write it and I’m glad that I did.

“You’re not a writer until you publish” is a too common misconception that young writers like myself seemed at one time to believe. We jealously haunt the aisles of bookstores, bitter and resentful that our own books are not on display right along those countless others. Yet, instead of giving into this self-destructive need to roam bookstores in resentment, we should be home writing, because in the end that is the only way we will end up becoming that writer we already know we are in our hearts.

Writing takes discipline. Revision takes discipline of Herculean proportions. I know of no writer, famous and not so famous, who is able to write anything of value in only one or two drafts. Umberto Eco, a relatively “young” writer takes, on average, seven years to complete a novel. It takes Thomas Pynchon even longer. It took Margaret Mitchell eight years to write Gone With the Wind. Ralph Ellison was still working on his second novel at the time of his death, forty-seven years after he published his first novel, Invisible Man. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Some respectable authors seem to come out with a novel nearly every year: Joyce Carol Oates, and lately Philip Roth, to name just two. But even these writers put out work that is less than exceptional on occasion.

There is no easy road to becoming a writer, but neither is the road unmarked. The aspiring writer need not spend money on those “how to” books advertising the secrets of writing and publishing. The simple fact of the matter is that being in the right place at the right time, understanding that this is a highly subjective field, and acknowledging that revision is where the real work of writing takes place are perhaps the three biggest secrets every aspiring writer should know. If you want to publish quickly and without a lot of revision, start a blog. If you want publish a novel or a work of non-fiction that you can be proud of, stop reading this and get back to writing.

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One thought on “What Does it Mean to be a Writer

  1. “..James Patterson, perhaps the world’s most successful author, but certainly one of the least talented..” like, like LIKE! THANK YOU – for saying what so many of us think.

    I’ve traveled down this same road, and I would add that every writer’s process is a little different. For some it is all about revision. For others first drafts take years because they are so carefully crafted. One size doesn’t fit all. But I agree completely that publishing does not a writer make (but the money and “legitimacy” would be nice).

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