Being a writer isn’t like being an accountant. For one thing, when I tell people what I do, they actually want to know more about it. Usually, that conversation doesn’t end until people know what I write, how many books I’ve published, and where I “get my ideas.”
We have this cultural fascination with writers, but there’s another reason people ask a lot of questions: Many of them want to be writers themselves.
According to Joseph Epstein, 81 percent of Americans feel that they have a book in them. (And Mr. Epstein is a guy whose advice for people who want to write a book is simply “don’t.”) As an author, I have encountered many aspiring authors and at least twice as many people who “would love to write but…”
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll call these people WLTWBs. The second part of this statement is fill-in-the-blank, but the most popular response by far is “I would love to write but I don’t have the time.”
Now, all you would-be writers out there who have ever uttered these words, I love you — which is why I have to call bullshit.
It is a common misconception that we need these huge, uninterrupted stretches of time in order to write. I actually think that having a lot of time to write can make writing more difficult.
“Often the greased slide to writer’s block is a huge batch of time earmarked: ‘Now Write,’” says Julia Cameron in “The Right to Write.”
Something that could be done at anytime doesn’t get done at all. We always think, “Oh, I’ll write later.” Then later comes and we still do not write.
I believe that “use it or lose it” time is actually much more productive for writing. If we know we only have 20 minutes between classes or 10 minutes before work, we don’t have any spare time to hem and haw. We are forced to get down to business, or we will lose our one and only opportunity.
I have to pause here to unapologetically applaud my mother-in-law, Frances. She raised four children and worked as a speech pathologist, and she was a writer. After her children grew up and she retired, Frances didn’t stop writing.
These days, she is in her 70s and a full-time caregiver to my father-in-law, who has PSP. All the responsibilities they once shared now fall to her. When the waterlines froze during a cold snap this year, it was Frances who had to crawl under the house to investigate the problem. My father-in-law needs constant care, and yet she still steals little snippets of time to write.
This is creative courage. It takes courage to prioritize our writing when everything is falling apart. It takes courage to do something for ourselves when we have a demanding job, family responsibilities, and housework.
“People don’t do this kind of thing because they have all kinds of extra time and energy for it,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert. “They do this kind of thing because their creativity matters to them enough that they are willing to make all kinds of extra sacrifices for it.”
If you would like to write but you feel you don’t have time, you have to decide how much your writing matters. If it’s important to you, you will find the time. You just have to decide that it’s a priority. You may not write every day, but you will write some.
This may sound harsh or overly simplistic, but it’s important to remember that writing is not an all-or-nothing pursuit. You do not need to quit your job to write. You do not have to abandon your family and move to the Italian countryside. You do not need to clear two hours or even an hour each day to prioritize you writing. You can start with as little as 10 minutes.
If you think you won’t get anywhere in 10 minutes, I promise you’ll get farther than you think. And you’ll certainly get farther than you would if you didn’t write for 10 minutes.
If you have been a WLTWB and time is not your issue, see if any of these things sound familiar:
I would love to write but…I’m not creative enough.
I would love to write but…I never manage to finish what I’m working on.
I would love to write but…I’m not a good writer.
These self-limiting beliefs all stem from self-doubt, which is something all writers face. You are not alone.
Take a moment now to write down all your objections. Don’t censor yourself — just list them all now to get them out in the open. Go for five or ten minutes, and see what you come up with. The results may shock you.
One thing you will quickly realize is that our limiting beliefs are almost always historical: they are based on traumatic or demoralizing events in our personal history.
Maybe you submitted your work once only to have it rejected. Maybe you abandoned your last three writing projects because you were trying to write about something you weren’t truly passionate about. Maybe you had a terrible sixth-grade teacher who marked up all your papers with a scary red pen. Maybe your brother stole your diary when you were nine and read it aloud in a mocking voice (true story).
When we begin to examine why we hold these beliefs, they begin to lose some of their power. Often we realize we’ve internalized beliefs on account of “evidence” that is actually decades old.
It’s important to remember that you are changing all the time. What may have been true three months or thirty years ago may not be true today. What is true today may not be true a year or even a month from now.
When I began looking for an agent for my very first novel, I didn’t have any credentials to my name. I gave up on the process immediately after I started and decided to go the indie publishing route. Several books in, I had an agent contact me wanting to sell my subsidiary rights.
This month, six years after I published my first novel, I began shopping my first nonfiction book. As soon as I sat down to write my query letter, I felt all that old self-doubt resurface. No one will want it, I told myself. The odds are a million to one. They probably get so many other submissions…Why would they want my book?
But you know what? I am not the same person I was six years ago. I am not 22 years old with zero publishing experience. I’ve put out 16 books since then. I’ve built my own writing business. I coach other aspiring authors. Somebody will want this book.
I share this only to demonstrate that our self-doubt never goes away completely. These old beliefs will resurface at the most inconvenient times, but it’s important to remind ourselves that we are ever-changing beings.
If you have never finished a novel in the past, it doesn’t mean you won’t finish one this year. (I have four unfinished novels to my name.) If you are truly lacking in writing skills, these are skills you can develop. If you worry you aren’t creative enough, you’re in good company. Many working writers feel that way, too.
How do I get past my own limiting beliefs? I just write so loud that I can’t hear myself think. Seriously!
The best way to get past limiting beliefs and go from being a WLTWB to a real writer is to write despite your own objections. You do not need a year in a secluded mountain cabin to write your novel. I wrote my first novel in 15-minute stretches waiting for the bus. You do not need to be a creative genius or a masterful writer — none of us is when we first start writing. You just need to steal 10 minutes, grab your notebook, and write as fast as you can.
Are you going to be a WLTWB or a writer this week?
Photo by Ana Tavares