Aspiring writers

[January 2010] I used to write short stories for fun when I was a college student. I shared these creations with a few friends, but I never considered submitting them for publication. I did send one in to the Twilight Zone fiction contest (the contest Dan Simmons one — boy, was I out of my league!) but otherwise I was content to simply create.

Then I became an aspiring writer for far too many years.

We all know aspiring writers. They’re the people who talk a lot about writing, about how they want to write, even about the stories they plan to write, but never get around to the actual process of putting words down on the page. They come up with any number of excuses for why they aren’t writing, some of them valid.

It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I became a writer again. I found the time to write most days, I devoted myself to improving my craft, and I started submitting things for publication.

I met an aspiring writer last week at the place where I normally have breakfast in the morning between my writing session and my day job. I’d been aware of him for a while. Each Thursday morning, he and several other men meet for breakfast. It’s not a very large place, so I often overhear their conversations. This guy talks at length about the novel he wants to write, going into great detail about the characters and the plot, other works it’s similar to, stuff like that. The other men give him a hard time–not because he wants to write, but because he’s been talking about writing for so long.

They aren’t very encouraging. This week I overheard him talk about an article he’d stumbled upon when he was going through his research material for the novel. One of his friends laughed and made a disparaging comment about the amount of dust he must have encountered. I’ve heard him mutter and laugh whenever the subject of the book comes up. They’ve heard it all before.

Last week, the fellow introduced himself to me after seeing a flyer I’d posted on the message board about my most recent book. He waited until the others were gone and proceeded to ask me questions about my writing. More than once he replied wistfully about how he wanted to do this and wanted to do that, but he couldn’t find time. I described my routine to him and I could see his internal conflict. He wanted to be able to do something similar, but for some reason he didn’t seem convinced that he could pull it off. I’m not sure what his stumbling block was — maybe he didn’t really have any faith in his ability to pull off a novel. Maybe he had talked about the book for so long that he had essentially already written it in his mind and so to put it down on paper seemed like drudgery. Perhaps his personal circumstances — family obligations or the demands of his day job — did not provide him with the necessary time and energy to work on his writing for any amount of time on a regular basis.

It’s probably difficult for any one of us to explain the transformation — what it is that convinces us to change from being aspiring writers to the real thing. I remember the excuses I used to come up with in the years before I started writing again. I had nowhere permanent to work. Every time I wanted to start working, I had to set up my computer somewhere and assemble my papers, and it just took too long. I didn’t want to lock myself away in a room and ignore the rest of the family. All very good excuses, and all surmountable, at least in my case. My wife bought me a rolltop desk, and that took care of the logistics. I summoned the gumption to get up at 5 a.m. each day, a time when no one else in the house was awake, to do my work, so I didn’t have to worry about ignoring people. And I mustered the stick-to-it-iveness to keep at it, day after day, week in, week out.

There’s a quote attributed to Dorothy Parker that says, “I hate writing, I love having written.” Aspiring writers never get to enjoy the second part.

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