“Real” is overrated.
When someone asks what you do, how do you answer? Does the label “writer” trip lightly off the tip of your tongue, or do you keep that identity to yourself and instead talk about your day job? It seems like a small thing, but how we “label” ourselves – to others and in our own minds – has a big impact on what we believe about ourselves and how we behave.
I actually do make my living as a writer, but the writing that pays my bills is not, in my estimation, “real” writing. When asked what I “do,” I usually say that I’m a messaging strategist and content marketer (and, then I have to explain what the heck that means). Even after nearly a decade of stringing one word after another for cold, hard cash, I still hesitate to grant myself the honorary title of “writer.” I don’t feel that writing (“real” writing – as in fiction and creative non-fiction) is my “real” job. It’s just something I do on the side.
But how do we define “real,” and are we doing it wrong?
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Your vocation is said to be your professional calling. It is your career, a serious pursuit that in a perfect world is specially suited to your specific talents and skills. An avocation, on the other hand, is a hobby, something you do outside of your “real” work. The subtext here is that it’s something you do for fun, in part because you’re not good enough to make a living at it. Most writers think of their writing as an avocation. At best, they think of it as a side hustle; at worst, they think of it as an indulgence. Because of these perceptions, we feel obligated to prioritize our vocation (sales manager, accountant, plumber, etc.) ahead of our writing. Our day job is, after all, our “real” job, right?
I don’t think so. I think that we have the idea of “real” seriously backwards. We erroneously assume that “real” requires permission, external validation, financial compensation, and the lion’s share of our time. Based on these criteria, we’re left with a very narrow description of what a “real writer” looks like: A real writer has permission to write; she has been ordained by the powers that be and (after jumping through multiple hoops and prostrating herself before members of the publishing world’s mafia) has been accepted into a cadre of the literary elite. A real writer is practically drowning in third-party validation – degrees, awards, recognition, respect, acclaim – she has earned the stamp of approval from all the important people. A real writer writes for a living. She can attach a (significant) dollar amount to her word smithing labors. And, finally, a real writer does not have time for other things. Her life is completely consumed by her art. She not only avoids the time drain of a j-o-b, she also finds it difficult to tear herself away from the keyboard for any reason. Family, friends, and housework be damned. I’m a writer!
First of all, this version of “real” does not sound like something I want. Secondly, I’m not even sure how we got so caught up chasing “real” in the first place. We’re writers, for heaven’s sake. “Real” – by that definition – is not where we live.
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Let’s forget, for a moment, about that version of “real.” Let’s divest ourselves of years (maybe generations) of misconceptions about what it takes to earn the title of Real Writer. Let these falsehoods drop away like pieces of an ill-fitting and uncomfortable costume you were wearing without even realizing it. Shrug off the suffocating and prickly cloak of permission; it kept tripping you up anyway. Set aside the heavy and precariously balanced headpiece of validation; its weight and your fear of it toppling have always kept you from dancing. Slip the burdensome chains of financial expectations from around your neck; you used to think they were beautiful, but now you realize they were just a glittering noose, one that clinked and clanked in a most distracting way. Finally, shimmy out of the constricting garments of inflexible and unrealistic dedication; breathe deeply of everything the world and your life have to offer – the art and your work, yes, but also the joys of family and friends, the delight of wasting time, and the magical adventure of chasing your curiosity.
Doesn’t that feel better?
“Real” is not something outside of you. It’s not something you can buy or earn. “Real” is not what you do or how you do it. It’s who you are. It’s what’s left after all that external stuff is stripped away or laid gently aside. It is everything about you that cannot be stolen.
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When you look at your life so far, what is real to you? Is it the money and professional titles you have earned, the material things you’ve bought, the perceptions of others? Do you judge yourself and your life on how you have acquired and spent money and stature? I doubt it. I bet if I sat down over a cup of coffee with any one of you, we’d end up talking about the importance of authenticity, taking time to enjoy life’s small pleasures, and being true to ourselves.
And yet, we we have a hard time judging the value and validity of our writing based on these values. We talk a good game, but then we make choices that belittle our writing. If we aren’t earning our living or great acclaim with our words and stories, our writing takes a back seat to the things that are more “real” – the things for which we are recognized (performance at work, for instance) and which put food on the table. And even if we have had some professional success, it’s never enough.
The danger lies in repeatedly prioritizing the falsely real over the “really real.” Our lives are shaped by the choices we make. Sometimes it’s hard to see the life we’re creating when we’re so immersed in the day-to-day, but when we step back we suddenly realize how all those small decisions come together to create the Big Picture of our life.
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When someone asks you what you do, you don’t have to say you’re a writer. But, when you think about who you are, I hope that you consider “writer” a part of your real identity – your true self, the part that cannot be taken away or changed by external forces. You may earn your living selling shoes, waiting tables, teaching sixth grade math, designing ad campaigns, or servicing cars, but that’s not your “real” job.
Your real job is writing. It’s work you feel called to do, work you do even though you may not get paid, work that keeps you up in the middle of the night (in the best possible way) and makes you excited to be alive. Your real job is writing because that’s the work that gives you a sense of purpose and your life a deeper meaning. Your j-o-b is simply a means to an end. You may be good at it. You may even enjoy it. But, that doesn’t make it any more “real” than your writing. You may receive money in exchange for the work you do at your job, but think about what you receive in exchange for your writing – a sense of discovery, understanding, fulfillment, joy, pride, connection – which is ultimately more valuable?
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The point of taking care to elevate your perception of yourself as a “real” writer is to ensure that you take that role seriously and give it the time and energy it deserves. You deserve respect as a writer. You deserve the chance to pursue your writing without guilt or shame. Your job is a short-term pursuit; your writing is a lifelong journey. Your job is a series of tasks; your writing is the expression of your unique vision. Your job is defined by what you earn; your writing is defined by what you learn. Your job is about doing; your writing is about being.
So, go ahead. Write. Be real. Be a real writer.
What I’m Reading:
A few weeks ago, I read a book called The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. Though I enjoyed the book, the funny thing is that when I was writing last week’s Shareworthy notes, I completely forgot that I had read it.
The Raven Boys is a straight-up paranormal YA read. I didn’t realize this when I first picked it up. I had bought the book a year or two ago at the earnest urging of a youngish bookshop employee who raved about it. When I finally picked it up off my shelf, I almost gave up after reading less than the first hundred pages because it was a little too angst-y for me. But, ultimately, I decided to stick it out and enjoy it for what it is.
This book is part of a series. I believe there are three books so far. Warning – book one ends with a major cliffhanger/teaser, so if you’re not down with that kind of thing, you may not want to take the ride. But, if you like dark, slightly cynical stories about the unlikely camaraderie of rich and poor young adults going on paranormal adventures together, this might be just the thing for a winter read. Plus, it has a raven named Chainsaw, so there’s that.
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I also really enjoyed the essay This Body by Zsofi McMullin on Full Grown People. I haven’t had the time recently to enjoy all the great writing that’s published on this indie blog from Jennifer Niesslein, but every once in a while the title of a piece or the intro Jennifer writes in her email update (I highly recommend you subscribe to the emails) makes me put aside what I’m doing to indulge in a few minutes of reading.
I especially loved this bit, because I can relate:
I miss being unaware of my body. I can’t remember when that was—maybe in my twenties?—when my body just did what it was supposed to do and I never gave it a second thought. I didn’t think about my weight or about being healthy or eating healthy, or whether I should exercise or not. I didn’t think about whether my stomach was too big to wear that shirt or if those jeans will make my butt look big. My body was just there, doing its thing. It never protested, it didn’t put on ten pounds in one stressful year. It didn’t ache, it didn’t bloat, it didn’t feel heavy and stiff in the mornings. It just was.
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I also loved this funny piece from Jane Roper: Life Moves Pretty Fast: 5 Ways to Ditch Your Phone Addiction. It includes great and well-written advice about how to wean ourselves off our phones. Plus, it has Ferris Bueller. I loved Jane’s I’m-mad-as-hell tone:
Pardon my French, but I’m sick of this merde. I’m sick of having to dodge pedestrians looking down instead of up. Sick of everyone being so glued to their mini screens that they’re oblivious to the world and the people around them, zoned out, rude, distracted, and isolated. And I am FURIOUS when I see people looking at their phones while they’re driving.
And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:
- A Stop-Motion Love Letter to the Power of Curiosity by Amanda Cleary Eastep via @brainpicker
- How to Get in Front of the Podcasting Trend [Growth Tips & Tools] by @globalcopywrite
- The Power Of Point Of View by @mbtinsley via @writerunboxed
- Secret Libraries of New York City
- 20 Ways To Be Creative When You Don’t Feel Inspired via @CoScheduleBlog
- Three Common Mistakes Made by Newer Writers by Leona Hinton via @storyfix
- DEAR AUTHORS, I’M SORRY by @MCSnugz
- Idea Generators: Creativity Tools for Journalists via @Poynter
- Engaging Audiences through Twitter in 15 Minutes a Day by @kikimojo via @JaneFriedman
- The Current @DonMaass via @writerunboxed
Finally, a quote for the week:
Here’s to feeling really real in all the best ways and for all the best reasons. Happy writing & happy reading. See you on the other side!
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.