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What It Takes To Become A Writer

Virginia Woolf is famous for having said that to be a woman and a writer, one needed a room of one’s own and five hundred pounds a year. In essence, she was advocating for space and time. Of course she was correct. Of course these are two essential components of a successful writing life. It’s better to work uninterrupted and undistracted, isn’t it?

But our dear Virginia didn’t have any children, and so didn’t really know the fine art of juggling time and competing demands. Her words still ring true, despite that. We all need that quiet, secure place to say what we need to say, and just how we want it said.

Writing takes more than time and money, though. Writing requires courage, and just how much continues to surprise me, after almost thirty years of relating to that crafty demon, who at times becomes a guardian angel – the blank page.

To be honest, to get at the truth, to probe a sensitive or unpopular subject – all require courage. I call this after-the-fact courage because you’ve already got the pen in your hand or your fingers on the keyboard. What interests and concerns me is the before-the-fact courage, the courage needed just to get started, and what you have to overcome in the first place.

Deterrents – ugly pokes – with which I am personally familiar:

Why am I wasting my time trying to become a writer? How many times have you asked yourself that same question? Chances are really good that if you’re even thinking along these lines, it’s because someone close to you at a formative point in your life was less than supportive of your literary ambitions. Sadly, even the most loved, respected, and validated of us tend to wander into this mire of self-doubt and self-damnation.

No one is ever going to read this anyway, so I should I bother trying to write it well? Isn’t that the worse image one can summon, a manuscript, in an unopened envelope or email, languishing, crying silently to itself? Or maybe what’s happened here is that you’ve projected yourself onto said hypothetical manuscript – perhaps you’re the one who feels locked away, out of sight.

If I were a real writer, I’d be published by now. Objective response is: maybe, maybe not. But more importantly, who gets to say?

Because you see, this is all about audience. Once you get the words out, you’re told to consider your audience, your reader. And before you get the words out, what audience are you listening to? The one that sits in the darkness while you try to find your way across the stage of your imagination and inspiration, throwing rotten vegetables and hissing. Isn’t it better to think of your audience as people who cheer you on? Or at least listen with an open mind?

If I’m any good, why haven’t I earned any money from my writing? Oh, so we’re talking about money now, are we? I thought we were talking about how we’re supposed to spend our time. Self-doubt and self-censorship are slippery beasts that like to change tack as needed. Anything to keep us quiet, right?

If I write a novel and no one wants to publish it, then I’ve failed. This poke used to be much more painful before the publishing world got turned on its ear. The doors have been beaten down by new models of publishing that connect readers and writers a lot more directly. Still, it’s a problem worth addressing, because it’s so easy to feel like a failure – even if you have several published titles to your name. The answer to that, I think, comes from seeing failure as the point when you give up trying to accomplish something – and in the larger world this isn’t confined just to writing – one can fail/stop trying at just about everything.

How do you turn off the nasty nags that live in your head? How do you keep them from poking you just because they’re bored?

Simple answer – figure out your goals and stay focused on them. As writers, we don’t all share the same goals, and what goals we develop at the outset usually change as time goes by.

Again, to use myself as an example, my first goal was to express the beauty of language. After many lovely sentences and paragraphs, I dared to write a not very good story that spawned many not very good stories. Then the goal became to figure out what a story was, and write one. Mission accomplished – eventually. The next goal was to publish one, then another, and to publish regularly. Check, check, and check. What followed was winning a contest, getting a collection together, publishing it as a book, winning an award for the book, writing another book, publishing that, winning more awards, and then THE NOVEL. It’s written, it’s published, it’s getting great reviews, and selling only a handful of copies.

So here are all these goals, any of which could be called a failure at a point when it simply hadn’t yet come to pass. And I called them all failures, when I should have been calling them successes.

The real way, I have found, to silence the natter and soften the pokes is to remind myself – always – that it’s okay not to obsess about each milestone, and that not obsessing doesn’t mean I’m not taking this whole writing gig seriously. That’s what courage really is, if you’re a writer. Knowing when not to listen to the naysayers and doom forecasters – especially when they’re speaking in your own voice.

This article originally appeared on November1, 2014 in Women Writers, Women's Books

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  • Irene Allison

    Anne, thank you! This is such a good reminder of the power of focusing on goals to avoid getting waylaid by negative voices (ours and others). 

  • Lori Evans

    I love this! I'm actually treating myself to a writing retreat by the beach - best thing I've ever done for myself. <3

  • Jeanne Nicholas

    I will reread this when I've actually finished the first draft.  I guess I skipped over all the little publish this article and that article steps.  With only 3 or 4 chapters left to produce I have a first novel to finish.  Then I will follow Steven Kings advice and put it away for six weeks while I delve into writing some shorts.  With today's market if you don't get published by one, go for the next or Indie publish, but never stop.  I have my heart set on one publisher but if they decline...<shrug> their competitor will capture a great read.  For me, its not about making the money but getting my stories out there.  Thanks for the jolt of reality reminders though.  I'll probably revisit this when I get to my 5 rejection, then again when I hit 20 or 50 or 100.  But, someone out there (even if its just my family) will finally get to buy the words of wonderfulness. 

  • omaira mora

    I did like very much both, the article written by Ann Leigh Parrish titled "WHAT IT TAKES TO BECOME A WRITER", and Miriam Ruff comments on her momentarily failure and what she did to overcome the embarrassment, frustration, and disappointment.

    These two shared experiences gave me so much hope. Thank you so much to Ann and Miriam. 

  • Miriam Ruff

    I am at a point where someone just trashed a story I had written, and for good reason. My first reaction was to go into a funk and declare I'd never be a good writer, so why am I trying so hard? The next reaction was to print out all her comments and look at them one by one, realizing that this was a great learning experience in how to write better, as she was right on the mark all the way through. It may take me a while to get the hang of it, but I do intend to hang in there. We are always learning. The minute we stop learning and trying is the minute we will ultimately fail.

  • Michelle Cox

    Thanks, Kathryn!  I needed that!

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith


    been there, felt that...a million times. It will pass. If you stop writing you will miss it and feel as if part of you is also missing. Keep writing.   

  • Michelle Cox

    Hi, Anne!  Sometimes I have moments of angst - of hyper self-awareness - in which I ask myself "what are you doing????"  you are wasting your life!  You should be doing.....(a thousand other things, fill in the blank)!  I have these occasional horrible moments in which I feel as though I've been walking in a dream and need to wake up.  However, I take deep breaths and try to tell myself that it doesn't matter if I only sell one book, I just have to keep going!  Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Crystal clary

    I am thankful for this forum.

  • Crystal clary realize that I must write, if anyone is to hear the inner voice of my concerns. Sure, I could hope that someone else would have my same thoughts and put the word out; but this has not been the case. In Las Vegas we have a growing  problem that should be addressed. Many people might not of heard about this "best kept secret," but after Neal Falls was shot and killed by an escort and this became public; I feel I need to share. This year 85 under aged girls have been victims of the sex slave industry. The police saved this number alone. Although these young girls have been recovered there are still more victims walking the street everyday. Neal Falls is responsible for murdering four women in Las Vegas alone. These young women were easy marks because of their job choice. But many women still fall victim to the monsters that lurk in the shadows, who simply were in the wrong place, alone, at the worst time. I write to bring awareness to the public, letting everyone know this is not just a "Hooker" problem.

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith

    Yep, Anne, being a writer isn't easy. It's like life...a long hard journey with lots of obstacles in your path. I, too, have been a writer for a very long time (44 years) and have seen, felt, experienced and endured all that a writer can. But I believe a writer is born to write and a true one won't quit. Just by coincidence I just started my very first blog and just posted "Why I Became a Writer 44 years ago"    I now hope to keep posting about the books I've written (23) and why I wrote them as time goes by. Nice post Anne!

  • Mardith Louisell

    "So here are all these goals, any of which could be called a failure at a point when it simply hadn’t yet come to pass. And I called them all failures, when I should have been calling them successes." Love this. It's about learning and accepting that learning is what it is. Not that I haven't, and don't, do all the things you write about. But looking back and counting what has been done as opposed to what hasn't - what a different take on the same events. Thanks for the post.

  • Bette Houtchens

    Great message! More power to you and your writing. Bette

  • Mary Ellen Latela

    Anne, I have read this before, but what strikes me today is your emphasis on courage. That is a virtue/attitude/gift which is essential. Yet the everyday challenges can interfere, if we don't keep our priorities straight. I can deal with some difficult news AND breathe, refocus, or rest a bit, then move ahead, realizing that courage is a silent partner.  Best wishes, Mary Ellen