Last Lecture: “Am I a writer?”

Last Lecture: “Am I a writer?”

At the end of the semester, I give presentations in my novel-writing classes about the publishing business. Many students are seniors getting ready to graduate. Hence, they are full of anxieties. The first thing they say is: Why didn’t anyone teach us about this sooner!

This is what I tell them.

Relax. Nobody told me about any of this when I was an undergraduate. And very little of it when I was in graduate school, something I’ve discussed already here.

The reason that undergraduate creative writing instruction is not focused on publishing is very simple: very few of you are ready for it right now. In my experience, a writing apprenticeship is about 5-10 years long. The timer starts the day you start taking writing seriously—meaning you stop thinking of writing as homework and start incorporating it into your daily life.

So, if very few of you are ready for it right now, why am I talking about it at all? Simple: because when you are ready, I won’t have time to explain this to you.

At least once a week, I get an email or message from someone I barely know who says, “I have written a book. How do I get it published?” I hate these messages. It’s like someone emailing a lawyer and saying, “I have decided to represent myself in a courtroom. Will you explain the legal profession to me now?”

“Publishing” isn’t something you can explain to anyone in an email, in 60 minutes or less, or in a blog post (although this one comes close!). And it’s not the responsibility of your teachers to explain it all to you, to “teach you how to publish.” They are responsible for teaching you to write well. Nothing matters more than that. The presentations I give don’t teach you how to publish so much as they teach you how to begin thinking about it.

Why didn’t I talk about this sooner? My God, does your generation need even more reasons to obsess about the degree to which you “matter?”

You say things to me like: “I just want to publish a book and hold it in my hand.” Are you sure that’s all you want? Because these days, you can publish a book and hold it in your hands fairly easily. What I’m trying to talk about are all the different ways to publish. Only you can decide what it means to you to be meaningfully published.

Often, when you say “I just want to be published,” what you mean is that you need the external validation of publishing. You need to be able to show others—your friends and family and your hometown enemies and your ex-partners—that you “made it.” This is a horrible reason to publish, and if publishing is all about proving something, then I predict you will rush things and make a mistake you’ll regret. And that you’ll have a nervous breakdown and/or become an alcoholic.

You say things to me like: “I need to find a job that relates to writing.” When I ask you why, you say, “Because I want to be a writer.” This is when I realize that you don’t know very much about how writers become writers. You don’t “become” a writer because of a particular degree or a particular kind of job, although, yes, being attached to a company or a school makes one feel legitimate more so than, say, selling cars or working in a law office or nannying or house painting or working as a geologist—which are all things that writers I know do (or have done) to pay the bills.

Let me emphasize this: the job you get after graduation has nothing to do with whether or not you are a writer.

Let me emphasize this: applying to (and being accepted into) a graduate writing program has nothing to do whether or not you are a writer.

You say things to me like: “But I just want to know if I can be a writer.” And I want to say: First of all, why are you asking me? Nobody—no degree-granting institution, no teacher, no editor, no association—grants you the status of writer. You don’t need anyone’s permission to be a writer. You have to give yourself permission. It’s an almost completely internal “switch” that you have to turn on and (this is harder) keep on.

You say things to me like: “Show me how to succeed, how to build my platform, how to get an agent,” and I want to say, “That is what I’ve been doing.” Because I’ve been teaching you to write well. All you control are the words on the page. Everything else is a crap shoot. Whether your work is ever published, where it gets published, if the book is reviewed, if anyone reads it or likes it, how your publisher will decide to represent and market it, what they put on the cover—none of that is in your control. The only thing you can do is sit down every day and give it your best. Some days resemble slow torture, but others will bring joy, what the writer Andre Dubus called “the occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes or longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth.”

You say things to me like “How do I know if I am a writer?” and I want you to watch the end of the other Capote movie, Infamous. Harper Lee’s character says:

It’s true for writers too who hope to create something lasting. They die a little getting it right. And then the book comes out. And there’s a dinner, maybe they give you a prize and then comes the inevitable and very American question: ‘What’s next?’ But the next thing can be so hard because now you know what it demands.

I’m 43 years old, and I thought that publishing a book meant I was a writer, but I was wrong. Convincing yourself each day to keep going, this means that you are a writer. The world will be sure to declare, “You matter, but you don’t. Wow, your work is exciting, but yours is old fashioned and dull.” What do you do when someone says, “Eh, you’re okay, I guess.” Do you stop? Or do you keep going? That’s the moment when you know whether or not you’re a writer.

You say things to me like, “Will you be disappointed in me if I stop writing,” and I want to say, “No, of course not.” Coming to terms with whether or not you are a writer might take years, which will surely drive everyone who loves you crazy. Try to avoid this, if possible. If you keep going, you’re a writer. If you decide to stop, simply tell yourself, “Well, I guess that was something I needed to do,” and move on as peacefully as you can.

Don’t be a writer because you have something to prove. Don’t do it because you think writers are celebrities. They are not celebrities. Don’t do it because you think it will bring you a happy life. I’m sorry, but it won’t. You shouldn’t write because you want to create something lasting, although that probably surprises you, doesn’t it? What better reason could there be?  I’ve only found one good reason to sit on your ass for four months or four years, one good reason to give so much of yourself for so little in return, one good reason to create something that fewer and fewer people care about—and that’s simply because you want to.

You ask me, “Am I writer?” and I say, “There’s only one way to find out. Write the book. And see what happens.”

CW Programs Teaching The Biggest Things Writing

69 comments

  1. Cathy, this post brought tears to my eyes. When I first started writing, it was all about telling the story. In the last two years, it became a strive for publication, and I let the rejections get the better of me.

    Your lecture, was like having cold water thrown on m face. Thank you for reminding me why I write.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thanks so much Victoria. External validation is important, things like pubs, but when you aren’t getting that, you have to have other reasons for writing. That was a lesson I learned the hard way a few years ago.

  2. Cathy, this post brought tears to my eyes. When I first started writing, it was all about telling the story. In the last two years, it became a strive for publication, and I let the rejections get the better of me.

    Your lecture, was like having cold water thrown on m face. Thank you for reminding me why I write.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thanks so much Victoria. External validation is important, things like pubs, but when you aren’t getting that, you have to have other reasons for writing. That was a lesson I learned the hard way a few years ago.

  3. Cathy Day says:

    Thanks to those who are reading this. I just remembered that the 2nd half of this post was written three years ago. A magazine asked me to write something for their “sports” issue, so I submitted a bunch of pep talks. They sent me a rejection notice: “This isn’t what we were looking for.” I was bummed and put the essay away–until yesterday when I was trying to write something for my students and realized I’d already written it.

  4. Cathy Day says:

    Thanks to those who are reading this. I just remembered that the 2nd half of this post was written three years ago. A magazine asked me to write something for their “sports” issue, so I submitted a bunch of pep talks. They sent me a rejection notice: “This isn’t what we were looking for.” I was bummed and put the essay away–until yesterday when I was trying to write something for my students and realized I’d already written it.

  5. Mimi Thebo says:

    I think the only reason to be a writer is because you can’t stop. Who, really, would CHOOSE it as a profession/lifestyle/life’s work? It’s more like a virus than a calling. A beloved, terminal illness that we’d rather have than lose…

  6. Mimi Thebo says:

    I think the only reason to be a writer is because you can’t stop. Who, really, would CHOOSE it as a profession/lifestyle/life’s work? It’s more like a virus than a calling. A beloved, terminal illness that we’d rather have than lose…

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thanks so much, Emily. Man, I wish I’d posted this sooner. But I guess the timing is good right now, being that it’s Graduation/Time-to-Freak-Out Season. :-)

  7. Cathy, Thanks for this great post. I’ve been running a “How to Become a Writer” interview series on my blog, and it’s based on much the same premise – that becoming a writer requires apprenticeship time, that it takes longer than the Famous Author’s or Hot Young Thing’s bio suggests, and that there’s more to it than publishing. In fact, most of my interviewees have achieved the big goal – they’ve published a book! – and feel like they’ve only just begun. (Maybe you’ll consider letting me interview you for the series??? At the very least I’d love to repost this entry.)

    Your fellow Hoosier,
    Kelcey Parker

    • Cathy Day says:

      Kelcey, thanks so much! Glad to virtually meet you! I see that we both just hosted Caitlin Horrocks at our respective schools. I’m going to email you about your request, but wanted to thank you here!

  8. Cathy, Thanks for this great post. I’ve been running a “How to Become a Writer” interview series on my blog, and it’s based on much the same premise – that becoming a writer requires apprenticeship time, that it takes longer than the Famous Author’s or Hot Young Thing’s bio suggests, and that there’s more to it than publishing. In fact, most of my interviewees have achieved the big goal – they’ve published a book! – and feel like they’ve only just begun. (Maybe you’ll consider letting me interview you for the series??? At the very least I’d love to repost this entry.)

    Your fellow Hoosier,
    Kelcey Parker

  9. Sarshi says:

    Thank you so much for this post! Yes, Graduation/Time-To-Freak-Out Season is a perfect time to read this because it’s optimistic, down to earth and encouraging.

    I wish all the best of luck to your students. And I also wish I had you as a professor.

  10. Sarshi says:

    Thank you so much for this post! Yes, Graduation/Time-To-Freak-Out Season is a perfect time to read this because it’s optimistic, down to earth and encouraging.

    I wish all the best of luck to your students. And I also wish I had you as a professor.

  11. Gary Brichetto says:

    I’ve had the wonderful fortune to have taught a bit of acting in recent years, and one of the first things I tell them is about the ridiculous unfairness and randomness of the profession. I tell them they must act only to satisfy whatever it is in them that compels them to act, and that if they can imagine themselves being happy doing anything else, then they must do it. Sounds like we say the same thing: the endeavor is the reward.

  12. Gary Brichetto says:

    I’ve had the wonderful fortune to have taught a bit of acting in recent years, and one of the first things I tell them is about the ridiculous unfairness and randomness of the profession. I tell them they must act only to satisfy whatever it is in them that compels them to act, and that if they can imagine themselves being happy doing anything else, then they must do it. Sounds like we say the same thing: the endeavor is the reward.

  13. That was a wonderfully encouraging post. I know I am a writer because I have no doubt that I do it for the love of writing. No question that I would love it if one day an agent would feel passionate enough about my work to represent me and so to the next stage; but that’s an aspiration rather than my motivation, which is pure love of writing. Of course, as you point out, this is often mixed with frustration, for me, at my own inadequacy as a novice. But I’m grafting! The only thing I do find isolating is that friends and my children find it rather embarassing that I spend all of my spare time and every day Just Before Sunrise (my new blog,) writing. They won’t do if I get published, of course! But, well, I just get on with it – hope you all do to out there in the novice writershpere. Go enjoy and develop your craft. I will; it’s a deal.

  14. That was a wonderfully encouraging post. I know I am a writer because I have no doubt that I do it for the love of writing. No question that I would love it if one day an agent would feel passionate enough about my work to represent me and so to the next stage; but that’s an aspiration rather than my motivation, which is pure love of writing. Of course, as you point out, this is often mixed with frustration, for me, at my own inadequacy as a novice. But I’m grafting! The only thing I do find isolating is that friends and my children find it rather embarassing that I spend all of my spare time and every day Just Before Sunrise (my new blog,) writing. They won’t do if I get published, of course! But, well, I just get on with it – hope you all do to out there in the novice writershpere. Go enjoy and develop your craft. I will; it’s a deal.

  15. Jeuron Dove says:

    Wow! Your post cuts to the bone. As a young writer, I can certainly relate to what you are saying. I will admit that there used to be a time in my life (and maybe a little bit is still in me) where I wanted to write solely for the purpose of proving something to myself or others. I could very well put together a mishmash of a self-published book (I’ve seen horribly rushed books put together with little thought or publishing expertise), and call myself a “writer”, but I’m aiming for something higher. At the end of the day, I feel like writing is the only thing I can do decently well and get some level of satisfaction out of.

    Is it challenging at times? Yes. Are there moments when I want to throw in the towel? Yes. But it’s the one thing I keep coming back to. Now I just need to incorporate it more into my daily life and I’ll be really making progress.

  16. Kirsten says:

    Thanks for this!
    Firmly convinced that I am not a writer, I sat down to write my book anyway, and discovered what a joy writing for the love of it can be. Your post confirmed what my heart has told me ever since words became my sanctuary from a world that often makes no sense.
    That I am a writer. :)
    (I reblogged this at http://www.wabwm.com)

  17. Kirsten says:

    Thanks for this!
    Firmly convinced that I am not a writer, I sat down to write my book anyway, and discovered what a joy writing for the love of it can be. Your post confirmed what my heart has told me ever since words became my sanctuary from a world that often makes no sense.
    That I am a writer. :)
    (I reblogged this at http://www.wabwm.com)

  18. Russ Jarvis says:

    I saw this page projected at the MWM12 today. Great piece of encouragement. I know the feeling I get when I sit myself down and get writing. Something clicks and I am affirmed that I love it when images and ideas come to life on the page. Whether or not it’s “good,” the connection I feel to something that once was not and now is assures me that whatever I do at the age of 55 to make a living, writing will always be a significant part of my life. II forwarded a link to my daughter who is a 2012 Fine Arts grad (graphic design). I told her to substitute “artist” for “writer.” The message fits the same. Thanks for helping me encourage her.

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  21. Olajide says:

    WOW….(notice the upper case), you indeed nailed it. Just like most spheres of life, to really excell one have to draw from the inner consolation creeks of sastisfaction, drawing from that which makes the urge to keep on coming…. That’s what writers need…. not to prove a point to friends or settle scores with foes…but overall a writer must write because he has the unlimited power within his reach to explore the unexplored, making him to challenge, encourage and pick himself up…this usually runs like a cycle…Thanks…lovely piece, ‘encouragingly’ challenging and motivating.

  22. Olajide says:

    WOW….(notice the upper case), you indeed nailed it. Just like most spheres of life, to really excell one have to draw from the inner consolation creeks of sastisfaction, drawing from that which makes the urge to keep on coming…. That’s what writers need…. not to prove a point to friends or settle scores with foes…but overall a writer must write because he has the unlimited power within his reach to explore the unexplored, making him to challenge, encourage and pick himself up…this usually runs like a cycle…Thanks…lovely piece, ‘encouragingly’ challenging and motivating.

  23. Jeffrey Sykes says:

    Thanks for this advice. Needed this today after a tough critique session in my writers group. I am back at the keyboard and trying to prove to myself that I can and will keep going.

  24. Thanks, Cathy. I was swimming in a swap of self-doubt when I found your post. You are very right when you saw we have no choice, it’s something we can’t not do. Thinking of the rest of my life never writing another word terrifies me. So I’ll just keep going. Thanks, again.

  25. Danielle Moody says:

    Followed a link from an article in “Brevity” magazine. Thank you for sharing these words of wisdom from your “Am I a writer?” lecture.

  26. TK OHearn says:

    Cathy,

    This is a profound article. I think many writing teachers struggle with what to tell young writers about publication (and old ones for that matter) and you really crystallize what a writer “is.” Not necessarily inspiration, interviews and accepting awards, but the pull of something that must be completed to feel sated, revisions, and trying to manage everything else in life:) Your students are fortunate to have a professor who is both a great writer and a phenomenal teacher.

  27. TK OHearn says:

    Cathy,

    This is a profound article. I think many writing teachers struggle with what to tell young writers about publication (and old ones for that matter) and you really crystallize what a writer “is.” Not necessarily inspiration, interviews and accepting awards, but the pull of something that must be completed to feel sated, revisions, and trying to manage everything else in life:) Your students are fortunate to have a professor who is both a great writer and a phenomenal teacher.

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