Do you remember the first time you wrote? I don’t mean the first time you formed the letters of the alphabet or wrote your name. I mean the first time you sat down alone and wrote something all your own. Do you remember what you wrote, why you wrote it, or what it felt like to put words – your words – down on the page? Did you have any idea then that you would keep writing – day after day, year after year?
Today marks thirty-nine years, one month, and thirteen days since I wrote my first journal entry. I was seven years-old at the time, and the words I chose for the first page of my first notebook were not my own. They were Shakespeare’s. I copied his poem Fairy’s Song from my Read Me a Poem children’s anthology. (Even then I was a stickler for proper attribution.) I was home from school because of a winter storm that had covered the world in snow “as deep as my knees.”
It took me five years to fill the pages of that journal. The entries read like unsent postcards, chronicling the daily events of my life for a nonexistent audience. I wrote – without keeping any particular schedule – about the mundane, small-town comings and goings of a middle-class pre-teen who loved horses, believed in unicorns, and was practicing her dancing techniques to her parents’ ABBA and Air Supply records.
But, with those few sporadic pages, the mold had been cast and writing became an integral part of my identity. I kept nature and dream field notes, wrote poetry and stories, and continued sharing my random thoughts within the pages of many, many diaries and journals. However, outside of a few pieces written for school assignments, I rarely shared what I wrote with anyone. Though I had dreams of being a published author, I kept my writing to myself.
Which brings us to today.
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I suppose most would consider me all grown up now. I’m somebody’s mom, make my living as a freelance content marketer and copywriter, and – as of last summer – pay the mortgage on my own home. I vote, pay taxes, and am a responsible driver. I’ve been married and divorced, hired and fired, lost and found. Chronologically, I guess I have earned the inauspicious title, “middle-aged,” meaning that I have spent nearly half a century on this little planet. More importantly, the vast majority of my time here has included a consistent writing practice.
But, despite all the time I’ve put in and all the words I’ve put down, I haven’t yet managed to create my perfect writing life.
I have created a good writing life. I am endlessly grateful that I’ve been able to sustain myself by writing from home for nearly the last decade. It’s something I’d dreamed of doing for years (and years!) before a crisis (in the form of my divorce) forced me to finally take the plunge. (#silverlining) I’m also grateful for my gig as a local columnist, the opportunity to take the occasional writing class, and – of course – having this space to share my random thoughts.
But, my childhood dreams still exist in my grown-up heart. I want more. Do you?
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Here’s the thing: Life is short. I know it’s trite. And I know you think you know how short life is, but I’m betting you really don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t be sitting here with me wishing for a different writing life, you’d be out there making it.
We forget that we are not immortal. We have a finite number of days and – as writers – a finite number of words. How do you want to spend your days? How do you want to spend your words?
Earlier this week I had an enlightening conversation with the lovely and insightful Jen Gresham, and that conversation has me thinking hard about WHAT my perfect writing life looks like, WHY I haven’t begun to create it yet, and HOW I can begin building it. I feel like I’m at the very beginning of a long journey – standing on the threshold of my warm and comfortable house, looking far out and away to where unfamiliar roads disappear into strange forests and between mountains. I hear the call to adventure, but I’m still hesitating to take that first step.
There’s a lot I don’t know and will have to figure out along the way, but because of my chat with Jen I feel like I’m starting to see the beginnings of a plan. It’s not a road map, exactly, but more like a set of clues – three steps to creating your perfect writing life. It may seem a little simplistic, kind of like this How to Draw an Owl “tutorial”:
BUT, these first three steps are actually not only critical to getting you started in the right direction, but are also the backbone of your whole journey. It’s sort of a “rinse and repeat” kind of thing.
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Step 1: Admit Where You Want to Go … And Own It
To adapt Mary Oliver’s beautiful quote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious [writing] life.”
The first step in any journey is choosing your destination. You don’t need to know every detail of the road, but you need to have a general idea of where you’re going. As a writer, you need to know where you want your words to take you. You need to have a sense of what your perfect writing life looks and feels like.
This isn’t as easy a step as you might think.
For many of us, just admitting to a writing dream is a challenge. Articulating our desire forces us to face the dragons of self-doubt, impostor syndrome, guilt, and fear of failure and ridicule. Our journey will be over before we begin if we lose the battle against these monsters. If you want to be the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, say that. If you want to be a poet laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner, or Oscar-winning screenwriter, say that. If you simply want to pen a family history for the enjoyment of your children or publish a series of short stories in literary magazines, say that. (If you need inspiration or proof of the power of stating your dreams, read the writing affirmations acclaimed science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler scribbled on the inside cover of a notebook.)
How you define your writing intentions, purpose, and mission is entirely up to you. There is no right or wrong answer to the question, “Where do you want your words to take you?” One answer is not better than another. It can be just as scary to say, “I just want to write and don’t need to be published” as it is to say, “I want to be on the New York Times Bestseller list.” Each of these choices comes with its own baggage and fears.
The path of least resistance is a long and winding road. Take it from someone who knows. Until you define your writing goals clearly and firmly, you will be doomed to meander aimlessly through your writing life. You will hop and skip from one writing endeavor to another, but probably end up going in circles. You might waste years traveling in the wrong direction.
Don’t panic if you don’t yet know exactly where you want to go with your writing. Spoiler alert: sometimes your destination changes on the way. If you’re unsure of where you should set your sights (for now), take a look at where you’re already investing your time and energy. What are your actions saying about the writing you want to do? You can also think about what you love most about writing – what motivates you and how you might reverse engineer your writing purpose from those motivations.
So, tell me, what DO you want to do with your one wild and precious writing life? What’s this writing thing all about, Alfie? Where are you headed?
Step 2: Give Your Inner Writer Some Tough Love
You can always do more.
In the cliché scene between the grizzled old sergeant and the young cadet, the older, more experienced mentor bears down hard on the upstart protegé, demanding through gritted teeth to know who the hell the whelp thinks he is. Standing toe-to-toe and nose-to-nose, the two face off in a battle of wills that pushes the young cadet to step up and fiercely declare himself.
Your inner writer might not need such an intense confrontation, but you will have to ask the hard questions. You have to know enough to be able to see through all the distractions and red herrings so you can get to the true heart of the matter. Sometimes, it takes someone on the outside to pierce through all that noise and get to the one thing that can really make a difference.
I was telling Jen about a writing project idea I’ve been working on. It’s something outside of the marketing work that I do, but it still falls into the realm of “content.” I was rambling on about the half-formed concept when Jen gently interrupted me to ask, “What’s stopping you from writing fiction?”
Insert awkward and slightly fraught pause here.
It’s a valid question, and I answered it with my usual list of fear-based excuses. Yep – I’m admitting that that’s exactly what they are. Fear. Based. Excuses. I had all kinds of logical and intellectually sound “reasons” why I’m not working on my fiction, but as soon as they had left my lips, I saw them for what they truly are.
Tough love has a lot to do with the difference between “reality” and “truth.” As Marcus Aurelias said, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” We are often too willing to accept the opinion and perspective of “reality” and turn a blind eye to the truth.
There’s nothing wrong with “being realistic,” but you can get caught in a trap if you’re not careful. Better that you balance your reality check with a healthy dose of undiluted truth. Like I said above – you can always do more … if you really want to. And, that’s the truth.
The evening after Jen and I talked, I shared parts of our conversation with my beau. Over a glass of wine, he listened and nodded and told me I was a fool if I didn’t follow through. I bristled. I’m not a fool. This is hard. It’s scary. I can’t just flip a switch. My fears may be “just” fears, but they are very real to me. I can’t dismantle them in a single afternoon. I’m not a fool. I’m not. Of course, he didn’t mean it that way. He meant that he believes in me and believes I can accomplish whatever I set out to do. It was his own kind of tough love.
The point is that you’ve got to ruthlessly strip away your excuses. You say you don’t have time? Make time. You say you don’t have the skills? Cultivate them. You say you don’t have the right degree/resume/contacts? In truth, those things aren’t what will make or break you. Forget about them. Don’t fall prey to the same old tired assumptions. You have more power and choice than you think.
Step 3: Take Your First Step (And Be Accountable)
You’ve declared your dream and exposed the true nature of the “realities” that keep you from that dream. Now what? Now it’s time to step out of your comfort zone and onto that unfamiliar road. It’s time to put your mug of tea down, pull on your walking shoes, and get started.
What can you do today to move one step closer to your perfect writing life? What small action can you take that will point you in the right direction, put you on the right path? How can you begin to maneuver around the roadblocks that have been standing in your way? What can you create, learn, or set in motion today? What project can you start? Who can you talk to? What risk can you take?
Choose your first step, set a deadline, and find a way to hold yourself accountable.
Goal. Deadline. Accountability.
GOAL: Your first step doesn’t have to be big. In fact, it’s best if it’s not. Remember that you need an action item, not a Big Project. Don’t say you want to write your novel. Say you want to write the first thousand words or draft an outline of the first act or create a character dossier for your protagonist. Be specific. Push yourself, but also make sure your goal is accessible. In other words, don’t set yourself up for failure.
DEADLINE: Don’t just say “someday.” Someday never gets here. Give yourself a week, thirty days, three months … whatever makes sense for the task you’ve set and your available time.
ACCOUNTABILITY: Make a bet with a friend, use the buddy system, promise yourself a reward, threaten yourself with a punishment. Just find an accountability method that works for you – something that will make you follow through with that first step.
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That’s what I have so far. It’s a modest start, but a solid one. Know where you want to go, discard the illusions you have about your ability to get there, and then take that first step. It’s simple, but not easy. The good news is that it’s true what they say about the first step being the hardest. Each one after that will be a little easier and a little easier. Before you know it, you’ll be running, leaping, and maybe even flying.
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.