One Thing Every Writer Must Know …

Last week, I was in Barnes and Noble doing a book signing. A young boy, Ian, walked up to the table. Ian was about seven and holding a stack of books. He stared at me determined. After a few moments, his dad nudged him and Ian asked, “How do I become a writer?”

“Well,” I smiled, “Do you like using a pen, pencil, computer or typewriter?

Ian, if you can write, if you can put words to paper, you are a writer. You never need anyone else to tell you that you are a writer."

You are a writer now. This is the hardest lesson for any writer to learn.

Fall in love with great stories, with the stories you cannot put down. Fall in love with language, with the poems and songs that make your heart fly. Fall in love with the imagery that sticks in your imagination. Read those stories and poems. Read them again and again. And always remember, the main thing every writer needs to know: you are a writer now.”

Ian smiled and shook my hand.

I think this is true of most of us – me included – at times. We think “writer” is a title bestowed on us in the distant future, like knighthood. One old day, when we have gray hair growing out of our ears, Sean Connery will appear at our door, asking us to kneel. Then he will tap us on the shoulder with a Claymore and say, “Arise, good sir.”

We look to others to name us as writers. Are we any good? Do we have a big fan base on social media? Are we published, famous, bestselling? We believe when we arrive at one of these landmark stops, we will be a bonafide. Writing becomes a destination that is either filled with applause at the end, or it is nothing at all.

As long as we look to others for approval, we will never find our writing voice. Even worse, as we strain to be popular, we may fall into writing like someone (or everyone) else. Our voice becomes an echo of an original. But echoes have diminishing returns. They become weaker and softer with each reverberation. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote this response to a young man who was asking him the same question:

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You compare your verses with other poems and you are upset when editors reject your work. Now I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can help you. No one. Go into yourself. Find the reason that commands you to write, see whether it has spread its roots to the very depths of your heart. Confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you could not write. Ask yourself in the most silent hour of the night - "must I write?" Dig deep for the answer. If the answer is "I Must" then build your life in accordance with that necessity. Your whole life must become a sign and impulse of this purpose. 

The writer who writes out of a silent inner mandate, of the whispering voice that says “I must” needs approval from no one. This writer understands his writing may or may not make him popular. It probably won’t make him famous. It may not even get published. While popularity is a fine thing, it is never the destination.

Writing is reaching into your deep soul, and then being brave enough to put those words on paper. No one else can say it like you can. No one. So stop waiting for Sean Connery to show up at your door and tell you that you’re a writer. Open your computer, pick up your pen or pencil and begin.

You are a writer. Now.

*This blog also appeared on Storylineblog.com