it’s okay to not be a writer

A friend of mine–a guy who *can* write, in that he can put words and stories together in an interesting and compelling fashion–just came to a revelation:

He’s not a writer.

He knows a lot of writers, by which I mean people who are successfully pursuing writing as a professional career. I think it’s easy, particularly if you have any kind of talent or impulse at all for putting words down on paper, to watch friends who are doing this and think, “I could do that. I *should* be doing that.”

For an awful lot of people, what this ends up translating to is guilt and anger over not writing, because often what they want is not to write, but to have written. Here’s the thing:

There is absolutely nothing wrong with not being a writer. There’s nothing wrong with being a hobbiest writer. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting publication or writing fanfic or just reading books and not writing them. There’s nothing wrong with writing an occasional story and not wanting to do more with it than post it for people to enjoy. Just because you’re capable of putting a story together doesn’t mean you have the–and oh, God, I hate using this word, because it creates a connotation of manic behavior, but that’s a topic for another essay–compulsion to do so. There’s nothing wrong with being able to write and not *wanting* to.

Years ago–I’m sure I’ve told this story here–Anne McCaffrey, upon hearing I wanted to be a writer, said, “Writing is a terrible, heartbreaking way to make a living. If you can do anything else, do it.”

I was barely twenty. I thought something to the effect of, “What the hell? Of *course* I *can* do other things. What’s that supposed to mean? I *want* to be a writer!”

I think it wasn’t until after I sold URBAN SHAMAN that I actually understood what she was saying. I could do other things, yes. I did web design and tech support and yadda yadda this and yadda yadda that and got paid for it and that was all well and good. But during nearly all that time, I was also writing. Writing was more important to me, generally speaking, then getting out of the house, hanging out with friends, doing social activities, whatever. I wrote five novels on my own and one with before I sold anything.

That was what Anne meant. Nothing was going to stop me from writing or (because it was my personal goal) trying sell my books. I’d found a paycheck in other fields, but finding that paycheck hadn’t stopped me from writing and eventually from trying to get published. That I’ve managed to actually make a career of it is happy circumstance: if I still had a day job, I would still be writing. If I never got published, I’d still write, because in the end, I can’t do anything else.

Although I’d like to think I’m about the last person on earth to tell people not to pursue their dreams, I’ve also come to think Anne was right. If you *can* do something else and be satisfied, do it, not because writing is a terrible and heartbreaking way to make a living (although it is), but because there’s nothing wrong with not being a writer. Don’t beat yourself up about the time you feel you should be spending at the keyboard. Go do something energizing with that time instead. Give yourself permission, if that’s the necessary phrase, not to write. You may discover that a year from now, or ten years or twenty years, you will suddenly turn a corner and be ready to write. Maybe you won’t. But with any luck you’ll have had fun in the meantime, which is a hell of a lot better than being upset at a blank computer screen.

And now, because I have spent over an hour on this essay, I’m going to actually go to work myself. :)

37 Comments

  1. autopope

    You have just reminded me of some clear evidence that I am insane:

    While working as lead programmer at a dot-com startup that went from zero to IPO in three years, while being responsible for servers that I’d written from scratch as a demo and that were constantly wheezing as the demand on them increased by 30% compounded monthly …

    I still managed to steal enough spare time to write a novel and a half. (Even though I’d never sold a novel and had no realistic prospect of doing so any time soon.)

    I think you could take that as a typical case of how obsessed with writing you have to be to get there. Right?

  2. natural20

    A friend of mine, who *is* a writer, no matter what it says in her job description, was the first person who made me realise that I’m not. And it was a good realisation, because it stopped me being pissed off at myself for not writing down the stories I felt that I should write and let me do bits and bobs now and again and, most importantly, tell most of my stories the way I wanted to, with an audience, and preferably a pint in hand.

    I like to think that I can put stories together on paper, but I know I have no compulsion to do so, and I know that if I have another way of making a living then I will go for that.

    But I am rather glad there are people like you who are mad in this particular way. :)

  3. cearabrede

    I’ve seen a couple people saying something like this lately, and every time it makes me stop and go, hmmm. I’m glad that it’s said. I listen and think about it, and say “Nope. Not satisfied unless I’m writing.” I don’t always have the best discipline with my writing – which is what pisses me off – but I will always *be* writing. I even tried not writing – I thought, it’s too much grief, I don’t need this – but I couldn’t stop creating stories. I’d toss a few notes out and say ‘stop it.’ And then I smacked myself for it, because really, if I’m going to do it I may as well just do it, no floundering. So I’ve just accepted the fact I’m a writer, and that’s what I do, and maybe someday I can take off my receptionist’s hat. ^_^

  4. shadawyn

    Yes. Well said. I’m always baffled by this “well if you’re good at it, you should be doing it.” Because being good at something doesn’t mean you love it and should have to perform that task, even if all your friends are doing it and like it themselves.

    (On the other hand, I don’t consider myself a particularly great writer, but I enjoy doing it, so I’m not gonna stop. Haha.)

  5. childlight

    I would LOVE to be a writer…but its just not in me. I love to read and I wish I could create something that brings others the same joy that I get from reading. Especially children as I still have the books I treasured as a child.

    One of the reasons I adore writer blogs such as yours is that I can get a feeling of what’s is like to be a writer from the blog.

  6. out_totheblack

    Wow. Thanks for this. It hit right at home. I guilt myself because I can write, but I don’t. I keep thinking that I should, all it takes is a little bit of effort and discipline which I don’t apply. Every now and then I pull out a rough draft and think I should work on it, then feel guilty when I don’t.

    I like to write and I think I write well. I find myself in awe of folks who can sit down and make a living of writing. I just can’t do it.

    Shortly after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I took a temporary job with Louisiana Sea Grant doing some technical writing documenting LSG’s reaction, response, and recovery efforts with regard to the twin hurricanes. I researched and wrote a 30 page document, much of which made it into their web page and into the re-writing of their Strategic Initiatives, some of my paper become “official” material for government offices.

    All of this was grand and exciting, but, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I still feel guilty.

  7. boymonster

    I struggle with actually being a writer. It takes a lot of people to make me see that I am, despite having done it since I was able to spell. I don’t know where this fits into the grand scheme of things in your theory, but I wonder if there’s actually a place for idiots like myself who have to come to grips with the fact that they ARE supposed to be doing this for a living.

  8. flit

    I find this kind of fascinating because it can be such a hard distinction.

    It’s a lot easier to say “I cook well, but I’m not a chef” than “I write well, but I’m not a writer.” What is it about writing that makes it so widely appealing?

    Knowing writers has made me confident that I am *not* one. I don’t have the application or compulsion. It’s really quite a relief to know that, and has been for a long while. (“So why ARE you a member of the creative writing club even though you’re not a writer?” “I like to read?”) I enjoy writing far more when I treat it like cooking: it’s a form of expression, but I prefer doing it for myself and possibly a small audience rather than generic and faceless masses of people.

  9. xnamkrad

    Thanks – now I don’t feel so guilty with not using up my spare time with writing.

    As said by others, thankfully there are the insane ones who do the writing for the rest of us to enjoy.

  10. kirbyk

    Yup, this is an important realization. I think it’s particularly true for writers, more than, say, programmers or chefs, because there’s a lot more people who can write well already than I have time to read. (And they still have to compete for my book dollars with Heinlein and Asimov and Lovecraft and Shakespeare!) There are very few staff fiction writer positions (TV shows, video game companies), and those are usually very restrictive. So, you’ve got to compete in an overcrowded buyers’ market. It’s damned hard to come out on top there. Whereas, if you’re a competent but not brilliant chef, you can find work in the middle ranks. There’s no middle ranks for fiction writers.

    I’m grateful that I don’t have the serious writing bug, so I can relax, get my creative urges satisfied by MUSHing, and go on with my life. :-)

  11. cedunkley

    When I was young I wrote a lot. I’ve got a bare bones rough draft of 5 science fiction stories (all part of a series) stashed away.

    I took a long break from writing to actually find a career I could live on (IT) and have recently returned to writing over the past couple of years.

    The time off has actualy been the best thing for me. I look back at my early writings and laugh. The worldbuilding and characters and plot are really good (imho) but the actual writing was childish.

    I’ve been spending time rereading my old favorites with a ‘writers mind’ if that makes sense, paying attention to how they craft the story.

    I don’t know if I will ever be published, but I know that I will continue to write. Even during those years when I had put the actual writing aside, the characters and their worlds continued to develop in the back of my brain. I think I am finally mature enough to properly tell the stories in my head.

    And, if I end the only one who reads them, that’s life..but a life spent creating something.

  12. sixteenbynine

    What bothers some people, I think, is that they find themselves in the company of other creative folks (when they themselves, too, have some soup├žon of creativity), and feel guilty that they are not living up to the level of their confederates. But not everyone has a moral obligation to be a creator in that sense. If anything, the people who do it the most are the ones who feel the obligation inwardly, rather than outwardly — they’re not trying to COMPETE.

    So — yes. Nothing will stop you, and that’s the best reason to do it — because you want that to fill your days, not because you want to brag.

  13. dsmoen

    William Zinsser was also one of those people who really wanted to have written and didn’t enjoy the writing process that much. Didn’t stop him from writing.

    I myself am much happier to have written than to write.

    For me, the real fun begins in the editing. I love that.

  14. st_rev

    …Anne McCaffrey, upon hearing I wanted to be a writer, said, “Writing is a terrible, heartbreaking way to make a living. If you can do anything else, do it.”

    My dad used to tell his acting students the same thing, almost word for word.

  15. jennifer_dunne

    It reminds me of my brother’s friend who’s a Hollywood actor (yet another job that sounds so much more glamourous to people who aren’t doing it, and that crushes the people who do, while not paying them anything close to enough to live on).

    When asked why someone would become an actor, he thought for a bit, then said, “Because they can’t NOT do it.”

  16. hzatz

    I discovered the distinction myself, while writing and then later editing my NaNoWriMo project. I realized that I’d always thought it would be cool to have written a novel–and it is. I didn’t realize how much fun it would be to write one, until I did it.

    I still don’t know what I’m going to do for my next job, though… but that’s another story.

  17. tersa

    Although I came to a similar conclusion a while ago, it was still nice to read this essay. :) I have discovered that I enjoy writing and have even discovered a certain level of compulsion to do it, but that I don’t self-identify as a Writer, and have no designs to try to make money off my work. I think that distinction is hard for people to grok.

    (Also, I read this essay this afternoon and it made me think of you. :)

  18. silkblade

    In college, I was in a class called “Playwriting for social change”. We had to write a play and a song and other stuff. The prof made some comment about how cool it would be to be able to say “I wrote a play!” later in life. And I do think it’s pretty fun to be able to say that. I kind of wish I had a copy of it still. I did get compliments on it from people who came to see the show the class put on (pieces of everyone’s plays).

    I occasionally write things. I think I do a good job with them. Granted, I don’t share them with many people (it’s all short stuff mostly) but I don’t cringe when I look back at it either!

    I admit that sometimes I want to be a Writer because it really would make my life better to be able to make my own schedule. The first sleep doc I saw said it was nice for people with my sleep disorder to be artists or something.

    On the other hand, I’ve heard lots of people come to Writing late in life. So maybe I’m just a late bloomer. :)

  19. ssha

    I have found, in assisting Anna and others in proofing their writing, that I really should probably be an editor, rather than a writer. After all, the biggest problem I have in my writing is that I get into this endless cycle of self-editting, and don’t get very far in my works as a result.

  20. dsmoen

    How I keep from self-editing: loud music in headphones.

    It keeps the editor distracted.

    I like techno for this, btw, though other writers like different stuff.

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