Stop calling yourself an aspiring writer (please)

don't call yourself an aspiring writer

A couple of days ago, I was thinking about the phrase “aspiring writer” or “aspiring author.” I recorded a quick YouTube video about it, but I wanted to share my thoughts about it here too.

I want to say first that I don’t mean to call anyone out or be a downer. In fact, I hope this is a positive rant! I’ve just been noticing that a fair number of people on social media refer to themselves as an aspiring writer. They post pictures of their works-in-progress, they talk about story ideas they’re fleshing out, they talk with other writers, they even attend workshops and conferences.

And every single time, I wish I could tell them: You already are a writer!

I do understand why they use the word “aspiring.” It’s a way to signal to the world that you’re serious, that one day you’re going to be published, maybe even famous. You’re saying “one day I’ll be a professional writer.”

But here’s why it bugs me: Being published doesn’t make you a writer. Being well-known doesn’t make you a writer. If you’re developing your craft and doing the work, then you’re a writer. Whether you’ve been at it for two months or twenty years – if you are writing relatively regularly, have stories in mind, think and talk about writing, then you are a writer.

I know it seems like I’m nitpicking here, but I really believe that using the word “aspiring” rewires our thinking in ways we wouldn’t seek to do consciously. “Aspiring” puts the focus on getting paid or “arriving.” While getting paid is good (I’m a freelance and fiction writer – I love getting paid!), it removes the work as the main thing. If people believe they have to be at a certain nebulous level to be considered a writer, then they might never get started. For every published piece of writing, there are months and often years of unseen work behind it. Sleepless nights, revising, re-revising, rejections, self-doubt, the tyranny of the blank page. Not to mention all the work that the writer decided was best to just keep in a drawer. Anyone who pushes through all that for the sake of a story they want to share is a writer, whether or not what they produce is ever published. If you start out thinking you’re not a “real” writer yet, you’ll probably feel less ownership over the project you have in mind.

Maybe some people tag themselves as “aspiring” because they encounter others who don’t put the same value on writing as a craft, or believe that writers are only as big as JK Rowling or Stephen King. People who expect “writers” to be prolific or popular are short-sighted, and in the minority. Most people take me at face value when I tell them I’m a writer. They don’t ask me to prove it. So if they believe me, and if I’ve been writing poems and stories and novels and zines and blog posts for years, who says I’m not a writer? There’s no governing body. There’s no entrance exam. There’s just your brain, your story, and your writing implement of choice. That’s it.

In 2012, I attended a Paul Auster interview where he said, “It’s impossible to describe how much I dislike my own work.” It was so liberating to hear. A revelation. Paul Auster’s work has been published since the ’70s, but he still dislikes it at times. Being published means nothing. It is not a train station that you will arrive at and be crowned Finally A Writer. So why not just crown yourself Writer at the very beginning and give yourself an easier – and infinitely more fun – time of it?

New novel & worldbuilding

At the end of 2017, I had finished the draft of my novel, and was feeling kind of lost. I had been working on it for a year, I had finished NaNoWriMo with it, and suddenly it was done and off to beta readers.

I had this writing momentum I didn’t want to lose, but I didn’t know what to work on. So I dipped back into something I had started years earlier. In 2012, Readers’ Digest invited people to submit their ultra-short stories on Twitter. One of my submissions was published, and I took this little snippet and started writing a story.

readers-digest-sg

I abandoned that story, and picking it up again last year, after so long with a novel, felt weird. I struggled with it. Maybe my brain had rewired without me realizing it. Whatever the reason, I decided that there was nothing for it but to turn that short story snippet into a new novel. The novel I wrote last year was more magical realism than anything, but this one is looking like a sci-fi/fantasyish/mystery sort of hybrid. I’ve read a fair amount of genre fiction, but have never attempted to write anything substantial in those areas myself. And, as it turns out, I’m enjoying it quite a lot.

Okay, I’ll be honest: I just completed the first chapter the other day. What had been occupying my brain up ’til then has been the research, the worldbuilding. I examined the small amount of actual narrative I’d written for the short story, and realized that I couldn’t go on – I hadn’t figured out how the magic system in this world worked. I didn’t know what made these people leave Earth. And then – it was a spaceship. How many people lived in it? What did they eat? How did they get water? What jobs did people have? Who kept the peace? Was there peace?

As I did more research into the backstory of my little world, I realized that this spaceship couldn’t look sleekly futuristic. No Star Trek, much as I love it. So, then I had other considerations: What animals would exist and why? What would peoples’ homes look like? Will every area look the same? If not – how would they differ? How would this environment influence the characters and the way they act?

novel world-building in pinterest

As with my previous novel, I found Pinterest helped me to find more concrete representations of the vague threads of ideas I had swirling around in my brain.

And when it came time to decide the all-important question of population growth over time in my city-ship, there was only one option:

novel world-building in excel

I haven’t gotten to the map-drawing stage yet, but oh, I will. When I was in middle school, I wrote a couple of little books set in a fictional town. I spent some summer afternoons happily drawing each character’s street, their house layouts, even the layout of their local mall (I was twelve). And, in a strange way, this worldbuilding reminds me of those pleasant afternoons, sitting on my bedroom floor, leaning against my door so my brother wouldn’t come in, getting completely lost in this entire creation process.

Despite the novel I just completed, I have been a short story writer longer than anything. I got used to the constraints of that format, even though my stories were on the long side. When I wrote my last novel, I had to really work at internalizing the fact that I had more time now, that I could do more things. Now, with this next novel, all I have are things to create and invent. There’s something slightly infuriating about that sometimes, but it’s also more than a little addicting. One idea rolls into another idea, which rolls into another, and everything seems possible and fun and worthy of investigation. I can’t recall thinking about a writing project so constantly, so excitedly, in years. During my Humber mentorship I discovered how much I enjoyed the process of unpicking the knot of yarn that a writing project can turn into. It’s deeply satisfying, feeling a writing problem unfurl and begin to carry you along again.

At least, it certainly feels like the complete opposite to the state of mind I was in in 2015, when I wrote a post with the dramatic title I quit writing!

Worldbuilding resources that helped me:

Do you have any worldbuilding resources to recommend?

Writing in reverse

Unpopular opinion: I think the Rewind feature in Instagram stories is better than any other (I’m looking at you, Boomerang.) And writing in reverse is sometimes more fun than writing normally.

Some old new things.

writing in 2011

I couldn’t tell you how I started, but tonight I found myself reading through archives of my blog previous to this one, Clock & Bell. I came across some old writing-related posts that, all these years later, were so much fun for me to read. Such a different time. Was I ever really that person? Writing those things? I was a good writer then and I loved it, but I was shaky on my legs about it, like a newborn foal.

(Reading those old posts, by the way, made me kind of regret shutting down my old blog. My reasons for doing so were sound and I’m glad I didn’t scrub it from the internet entirely, but part of me does miss it, as part of me misses almost every blog I shut down. It was such a good part of my life!)

Anyway, if you’re interested, they are all of the posts from between 2010 and January 2012 – or you can choose from this list:

Some other entries not necessarily writing-related, but were old favourites of mine:

 

November 2008, Calgary.

The boy crosses the street towards the School for Bad Children. It is cold but his jacket is unzipped and hangs from his shoulders. He calls cheerfully to his waiting teacher, “I just saw some of my old friends but I walked right by them!” And I think of all the worlds of meaning in this scene and that sentence.

I am going to recycle the following:

Some kids from the elementary school near my workplace have been installed as crossing guards. They stand at each side of the road in their bright yellow reflective vests, blow a whistle and hold out stop signs. They’re so serious, their arms straight and strong, looking directly ahead, sternly. I say thank you to each one and smile, and they just flicked their eyes toward me and away again. They are little Buckingham Palace guards.

Where I’ve been

writing-in-bed

So. Things have been quiet here lately! After 20 years, it feels weird not keeping up a blog on a regular basis, not thinking about it. I wonder these days if blogs are fading in favour of other channels. Or maybe that’s just how it’s been with me.

I’m not saying I’m going away forever – this blog is a great place for me to share things I’m thinking, or little bits of creative writing that don’t really make sense on Instagram or Twitter. But I wanted to share some of the other places where I’ve been more active lately:

The Quiet is Loud – My TinyLetter
I’ve been writing here about once a month, sharing longer thoughts on writing and life stuff. Many of my letters are made public, but some aren’t – so please subscribe if you’re interested!

YouTube
I started a little channel to talk about writing things, and sometimes books. I’ve also been doing  a fun YouTube Book Club with my friend Suzen – Slam Book Fever – reviewing the first 12 Sweet Valley High books from a distance of ~30 years.

Pinterest – Novel research
Now that the first draft of my novel is finished, I thought it would be fun to share the Pinterest research board I’d been adding to periodically as I wrote. It’s interesting to see the earliest pins, the things I thought would be part of my novel over a year ago. It’s changed, but it’s also gratifying to see how close it remained to that initial vision!

And of course, I’m still posting on Instagram and Twitter quite a bit!

Doris Lessing and wool-gathering

writing 2010
My grandmother and Doris Lessing presiding over my writing desk, 2010.

I found an old post from a different blog (called “Wordscience” – not to be confused with another, more talented Samantha!), written in 2010 as I was reading the second volume of Doris Lessing’s autobiography. This excerpt has always stuck with me, and I thought it worthy to share here too:

Impossible to describe a writer’s life, for the real part of it cannot be written down. How did my day go in those early days in London, in Church Street? I woke at five, when the child did. He came into my bed, and I told or read him stories or rhymes. We got dressed, he ate, and then I took him to the school up the street . . . I shopped a little, and then my real day began. The feverish need to get this or that done . . . had to be subdued to the flat, dull state one needs to write in . . .

And now, on the little table that has been cleared of breakfast things, replaced by scattered sheets of paper, is the typewriter, waiting for me. Work begins. I do not sit down but wander around the room. I think on my feet . . . I find myself in the chair by the machine. I write a sentence . . . will it stand? But never mind, look at it later, just get on with it, get the flow started. And so it goes on. I walk and I prowl, my hands busy with this and that . . . I walk, I write. If the telephone rings I try to answer it without breaking the concentration. And so it goes on, all day, until it is time to fetch the child from school or until he arrives at the door . . .

So that’s the outline of a day. But nowhere in it is there the truth of the process of writing. I fall back on that useful word ‘wool-gathering.’ And this goes on when you are shopping, cooking, anything. You are reading but find the book has lowered itself: you are wool-gathering. The creative dark. Incommunicable.

– Doris Lessing, in Volume Two of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade