Posted in Writing

People Will Make You Feel Lousy about Being a Writer

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In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

I have spent a good many years being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused of someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write, someone will try to make you feel lousy about it.

There are two directions to take this quote.

The first is that in a very general sense you will have people in your life who make you feel lousy about being a writer. And the second, more specific direction is that people will make you feel lousy about writing in a specific genre.

Let’s start with the first direction. Rarely a week goes by when I don’t have someone make me feel lousy about being a writer. Sometimes it’s me doubting my own merit, my own worth. Sometimes it’s people who suggest that what I do every day isn’t a job, isn’t a career, it’s a hobby. Even after writing 18 books and securing a literary agent and having a book out on submission and graduating with an MFA in Creative Writing, there’s still that sense that I’m goofing off, not committing to something that’s secure.

It’s true in some regard that writing has not brought me any financial stability. It brings me stability in a lot of ways, most especially in my soul, but nothing I’ve written has hit in a way yet that would prevent me from having to work a real job. And you know what? That’s okay. It happens to most of us. There’s never a guarantee that what you’re currently working on will ever go anywhere, or make you a dime, or ever be read.

But when you wake up every morning compelled to write in any way possible, whether it’s the whole day if it’s available, or just a half-hour you can fit in somewhere in your busy schedule, you need to call yourself a writer. Don’t allow people to make you feel lousy about what you do. And when they do make you feel bad, try if at all possible to distance yourself from that person. You want love in your life. And you want support in what you do.

One thing that’s helped me as of late is that when someone asks what I do, I tell them I’m a writer. For years I did not do this. When I was asked this question, I would say I’m a teacher, because teaching paid me every month, not writing. It felt wrong to say I was a writer first and foremost because it wasn’t supporting me financially, but in the last year I’ve tried to say I’m a writer first and a teacher second. It makes me feel better about myself. And when the person asks what I’ve written, I tell them. I bask in my accomplishments for a little bit. Be proud of what you do, and who you are. Never apologize for being a writer.

The second direction to take the King quote is specific to the kind of content you actually write. Maybe you only write literary fiction and want to one day win the Pulitzer Prize. Okay, go for it. Maybe you write romance fiction. Or mystery fiction. Or non-fiction. Or books for children. Or erotica. Or poetry. Or maybe a mix of all these.

King is saying that despite his massive popularity he sometimes felt bad about the kind of writing he was putting out, horror fiction that some people thought was beneath him. The thinking might be there, even for the writer: If I’m going to dedicate my life to this practice, shouldn’t I reach for the stars? Instead of writing a gruesome horror yarn, shouldn’t I write something more substantial, something literary and life-affirming and positive and deep?

I believe in two things here. First, write what you want to write. Don’t try to write something because you think you should be writing it. Write what you love to read, what inspires you, what excites you. For me it’s middle grade and young adult fiction. From my first year writing novels, I’ve been pulled to a few different genres, but I’ve always loved writing for children. I feel like my voice is best suited to books aimed at younger readers, and it’s what I’ve loved writing the most all these years. Occasionally I stumble into the world of adult fiction, especially in my short stories, but I’m never as much at home as I am in writing MG and YA fiction. And the sooner you learn what your niche is, you want to gravitate toward it, write a lot for that niche, fail, fail again, build your knowledge of that niche and keep getting better.

The second thing I believe in is to take that niche you love, whether it’s YA or romance or horror or whatever, and make your writing soar. Don’t write cheap fiction. Don’t think to yourself, well, this is a horror story so I can write mediocre prose, I can half-ass this. Benjamin Percy has an amazing craft book called Thrill Me that I’ll be looking at in depth in the months to come, and his whole philosophy is to merge the high-quality literary fiction with the commercial genre fiction to create books that are awesome. And that’s what you want to do to.

No matter what genre you write in, do your best work, treat it seriously, keep reading, keep writing, keep improving.

And don’t let anyone deter you from your destiny.

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