Thursday, September 22, 2011

Work in Progress: Life Stages of a Writer

There is taking your writing career seriously and there is writing.  Both are important for a writer hoping to make a mark on the world, to get published.  I have a friend who asserted the continuum of how one approaches writing goes something like this:

--self-therapy:  We write for ourselves, for an audience of one, because it feels “good” and we have “something to say”; we’re bleeding out words (think journaling and Anne Lamott’s shitty first drafts)

--craft:  We see that there are techniques and skills that will make our work better; we begin to study and learn and think about HOW we’re telling our stories, not just WHY (think classes, writing groups, MFAs)

--career:  We are striving to be a Writer, to make money, to get published, to keep getting published; we meet lots of other writers and remember their names, not always because we admire their work but because they direct a reading series and might be looking for someone to read next fall (think AWP, conferences, Facebook, agents & editors)

While it may seem as though some of these stages are preferable to other stages, that isn’t necessarily the case.  A writer with larger ambition probably needs to be able to move fluidly through all three stages; a writer who is content to write a memoir of his/her life and self-publish it for family members may never leave the self-therapy stage, and that’s fine.

What I’ve been thinking about is how easy it is to get trapped in the third stage and think that you’ve already fulfilled the first two and therefore you need to focus only on getting published, to think of your career.  On paper, we know the dangers of that strategy.  On paper (or in class) I’m the first to say, “Write the story you want to write,” and, “Worry about the marketplace later.”

In practice, the marketplace is always in our face, whether because we’re on Facebook with a lot of writers who are all getting published left and right or because our family asks every two minutes, “When will your novel be published?” or because we’re asking that same question in our heads even  more frequently than the family members.

Right now I’ve decided to spend some time in stage one for a little while.  I am writing the story I want to write.  I don’t know where this work is going, or what the larger goal is.  These stories are hard to face, challenging for me to think about, and yet feel somehow necessary.  As a result, I’ve written not one but TWO short stories that are 35 pages long.  (We all know what the marketplace thinks of that!)  As a result, I alternate between utmost confidence and utter terror at over all this time I’m “wasting.”  As a result, well…I’m trying not to care about results; I’m trying to care simply about the writing, about the story I “have to tell.”

“Quit worrying about whether or not it’s good and worry about whether or not it’s true.”  ~~Carolyn Forche


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.