I had these words taped to my fridge in every crappy apartment I ever lived in, in New York.
“A writer writes.”
I moved there to write. I left without ever having been published, after hammering away at endless projects fruitlessly, lugging around my stacks of legal pads and sheaves of computer paper from place to place like my life depended on it.
And my life did depend on it. When I stopped writing at 25, it was because I’d met a man and fallen in love. With this man, and without my writing (aka my self), I abandoned everything I held dear. In a string of dehumanizing events, I started doing drugs, lost my job, was evicted from my apartment, became homeless for over a year, ran away from New York to Chicago and became a dancer.
The last thing I wrote before all that happened was a tally of how many days in a row we had snorted coke. I gave up after day 23, when I showed my boyfriend the tally, worried, and he laughed and called me a baby as he cut up some more lines.
The first thing I wrote after I left him was a 350 page account of all the horrible things he and I had done. It took me three years.
During this agonizing transcription, I kept a few directives in mind which served me well. As I reflected on these recently, I realized they are not just good guidelines for writers, but for an authentic life.
First and foremost, a writer writes.
If you love something, but you don’t do it, it won’t be long before you’re falling apart at the seams. This applies to anything, not just writing. A builder builds. A nurse nurses. A painter paints.
It’s likely that you’ll have to do a bunch of other stuff with your time too. It wasn’t until recently that I made one thin dime with my writing which meant I was waitressing, bar tending, teaching, mothering and more just to make ends meet.
Some professions, of course, lend themselves more favorably to money making, allowing the people who love them to focus entirely on the thing they love, but for the rest of us, our real job is to find the time to squeeze in the stuff that fills out the edges of our heart, because otherwise we’re just going through the motions and there is no worse way to waste your time here on earth.
Second, don’t let the fear of failure or mediocrity stop you from doing what you love.
I’ll never be the next Zora Neale Hurston, but I still have something to contribute.
Not the least of which is becoming a self actualized human who is lit from within by pursuing something passionately. That itself is more important than any essay or book that may ever roll off my printer.
It also helps to remember that we get as many chances to do better as we have days to be alive. Years ago, when I read the wonderful book “Bird By Bird” by Anne Lamott (which offers the best advice on writing ever), her chapter “Shitty First Drafts” just about saved my life.
A notorious perfectionist, I was convinced that if things weren’t done perfectly, they shouldn’t be done at all. Lamott’s urging to just let yourself be messy and awkward and horrible, knowing that you can re-work, clean up, and refine anything gave me permission to be free. Without that, I would’ve been permanently stuck on the first sentence of my (admittedly inflated) novel.
It works the same way in life. Don’t pursue your passions in the name of perfection, pursue them in the name of love. Accept that you won’t be great at the start, that you may never be great, and just do it anyway with your whole heart. If there is greatness in you, that’s the way it will come to fruition, and even if you don’t, your strident commitment can been seen as greatness itself.
The third piece of transformative advice I found for writing and life came from Stephen King in his book “On Writing.”
King suggests that all writers, whether they realize it or not, write with a “perfect reader” in mind. The perfect reader is the person an author is really speaking to and hoping to be heard by. Once you know this, and figure out who your perfect reader is, your writing becomes a lot more clear. The old adage “You can’t please all the people all the time” is a similar idea.
Don’t dilute your work by trying to make everyone happy.
As a chronic pleaser, the more I’ve accepted this, the more peace and energy I have felt. Know who and what it is that is important to you and focus on those people and things. Let the rest go. We don’t have limitless resources and must intelligently use the ones we do have.
If you can find the strength and consistency to labor away at something which may never provide any dividends beyond love of the work, if you can embrace the idea of failure and soldier on regardless, and if you can do these things with unapologetic clarity, then you are honoring your true purpose.
In doing so, you are also lighting the way for others to honor theirs.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman