Also known as getting one’s ass in gear.
With my son in college I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering career choices. Not mine (too late there)… his. About how to launch one’s naïve and hopeful self in the general vicinity of making a worthy and enduring dream come true.
First you find such a dream. Some never do.
Then you need a gameplan. Some never do that, either.
Some just talk about intentions, or the dream that got away.
And then there’s writing.
Where none of the principles of career management and dream-mongering apply. And yet, if you take things at face value, it is a dream held by many.
It isn’t remotely hard to grasp why so few people plan on becoming a writer. It’s more like the universe leads you there after kicking around the want ads for a while.
It seems, from the writer’s point of view, that more people want to be writers than don’t. Even if they can’t write a grocery list. This article is about calling them out, and perhaps helping them get started.
Imagine a cocktail party in which you confess to a group of strangers that you build stadiums and bridges for a living (something I hope catches my son’s fancy, by the way). And very quickly, almost as a knee-jerk reaction, somebody says, “oh yeah, I’ve always wanted to do that, I’ve got this cool idea for a ballpark stuck in my head… I dunno, maybe I’ll get around to starting on that someday.”
Impressive. The guy wants to build a baseball stadium. When he gets around to it.
You, the stadium builder, may be inclined to club the guy with your diploma and stuff the documents from your student loan down his throat. Or you might just smile, take a calming sip and try to somehow avoid shaking your head at the insensitive, minimalizing cluelessness of that comment, which was offered in all seriousness, if not with that very intention.
But you’re a writer and the comment was about writing a book someday, which means you probably took it as a compliment.
And maybe it was.
Who knows… unless you dig a little deeper.
Yes, this writing thing we do is a strange and mysterious avocation indeed. It is a dream held by many, a pursuit dabbled in by some, a dream seriously pursued by a courageous few, and a destination that demands a strong constitution and a clear and strategic head.
It’s so damn easy to say that you intend to write a book. And yet – because you, the real writer, know – the orator has no idea what they are saying, and how self-serving it can come off. As if they are choosing between this and running for the Senate in their spare time.
It’s inane and confounding… unless you dig for the gold in this moment.
What you know, and what this cocktail bantering neophyte doesn’t, is that writing a book is something you can dabble at, or it is something you can go after with a ferocious passion. There is little middle ground between those two adopted mindsets, and only one of them has a shot at working out.
If you’ve been a writer for long, you’ve discovered that this is what people will tell you – that they’d like to write a book. Become an author. That they’re sitting on a literary gold. You’ll hear it all the time, in fact: yeah, I’ve got this story in my head… maybe I’ll get around to it one day.
Just like that stadium.
You may take it as a compliment, and they may mean it as one, but this conversation is a snake pit disguised as a can of worms. You get to decide if you call them out on it. Or not.
Unless it isn’t a lie. Which defines the opportunity at hand.
If you haven’t heard this before, then nobody in your little universe knows you are a writer. Because it is inevitable, it comes with the territory.
I offer you a genuine, thoughtful response for when it happens to you.
It will either shut them up through some combination of embarrassment, the sudden realization of their own naïveté, the exposure of their complete and utter self-puffing lie … or it might very well point them where they need to go.
Either way, it’s good (and good fun) to call them out and see what happens.
In which case, if it isn’t a lie, the calling out becomes a magnificent gift. Maybe somebody told you how to move from intention to action, maybe not, but this is your chance to bestow it.
What you say might get them off the dime and allow them to truly, seriously, determine if writing a book is something they should, or would want to, pursue.
First question: why?
Ask them to explain why they are considering writing a book someday. Listen closely for the right answer, which doesn’t come near the words “rich” and “famous” or “fun.”
Rewarding, very possibly. But “fun” is relative, as is building stadiums.
What you’re looking for in this moment is a story worth telling, in some combination with an experience (the writing itself) that they believe might benefit or reward them in some meaningful way. To get something off their chest. To explore that which they do not understand. To grow. To make people happy.
To live the dream. There’s always the chance that they’re simply trying to get some skin with you. Roll with it, see what happens.
It is not your place to judge their story in this moment. Just listen. Judge only the intentions behind it. If you deem them worthy – because you know how freaking hard it is to sit down and turn the intention to write a book into the outcome of having written one – press forward with this conversation. And lead them to salvation.
Trust me, if they weren’t serious they’ll ditch you quicker than an empty glass. But if they are, there’s no separating them from you in this moment.
And in that moment, you are living into your destiny as a writer. Because you have the opportunity to change a life.
Now ask, why not?
Once they’ve aired the backstory of their intentions, then ask why they haven’t started this journey in earnest.
You can write the script for the forthcoming response. Don’t have time. Don’t know how. Don’t think I’d be up for it, not smart enough. I don’t read that many books so I don’t think I could write one.
Welcome to being human. Welcome to writing.
There is only one thing you can say in that moment that will help.
If you tell them they are stepping off a ledge with no parachute, that writing a book is an intoxicating hot mess of confusion and contradiction and that, at the end of the day, you have to figure it out for yourself and good luck with that because nobody in my writing group can do it – even though that may be true – that’s like telling a kid with a bat and a dream that the odds of getting drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers are greater than dying in an air disaster. Both of which are miniscule and dark.
Don’t go there. Writing is a journey, not a destination. Writing is a promise of experience, not of outcome. Be clear on that. And convey it as you respond.
Life is nothing if not experience. Outcome is rarely within our total control.
Instead, tell them there is an accessible literary methodology available, a model to be seized and harnessed. Not less reliable than the physics of flying. Physics that can be learned. That there are examples everywhere that prove the model viable, and that if they are serious about this writing thing, it is something they can discover and embrace, and then through practice and a dash of inspiration and a shit-load of hard work… they can get there.
They can write a story.
Or not. There are never guarantees when it comes to our writing.
And that if they do this, and do it with passion and courage, it will be the sweetest, most rewarding and hopeful personal journey of their entire life. That they will be alive in a way that people who don’t write are not, and that they might never be otherwise.
Because they are listening to the lyrics. Looking for meaning and poetry and God in everything, every moment and every frame, in every drop of rain, every tear and every silent thought.
Tell them that.
Tell them that writing will bring them back to life.
If they turn away in search of more vodka, you never stood a chance anyhow. The dream was a lie designed for one of two things: to impress you, or to minimize you.
But if this response elicits more questions, delivered with eyes the size of martini olives… well, that warm glow you’re feeling is the rush of lighting a fuse in someone who just might listen. Of giving wings to a dream that you already understand.
Writers like to say – and I’ve said this here myself – that at the end of the day we’re very much alone with our stories, that this is a lonely pursuit that requires one’s enjoyment of one’s own company.
Alone with our stories, maybe. Alone with the experience of writing… we share that with everyone who tries to engage with it.
Maybe writing is a passion that, when shared, breaks down the walls between us. Certainly that is the goal of all that we write, of every solitary moment we spend writing it. And if we get to share it, along with our pursuit of the craft, with humble enthusiasm and hope, you may just find someone who will listen.
Published or unpublished, we can all speak for the experience of being a writer, and for the rewards it offers.
Even when it hurts. Nobody said life was easy.
Share the love. There will never be enough good stories out there, and you may be a part of one simply by opening a door.
My new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing” (coming out from Writers Digest Books at the end of February), is my love letter to the craft of writing, and a fresh new model for anyone looking for a way to access what it means and what it takes to bring a story to viable life.
As is this website, which I hope has opened a few doors for you, as well.