Wherever I go, I meet people who want to become writers. At a party, in the dentist’s waiting room, on a cross-country flight, if the conversation turns to what it is that I do and I say, “I’m a writer,” someone will invariably tell me that he or she would love to become a writer. People tell me they could write a magnum opus about what goes on in their office, or a horror novel based on their first marriage, or a satire inspired by all the hilarious things their three-year-old daughter does.
I am always polite and encouraging with these people, but the truth is, they will not become writers. A writer is not something you become. It is something you are, something you do. People who are writers don’t talk about the books they could write. What they do is write those books.
As a child, I never dreamed of becoming a writer. I had a long list of what I wanted to become when I grew up: a ballerina, an astronaut, a farmer, an actress, a Supreme Court justice, a third-grade teacher, a United Nations translator, a rock star and a veterinarian. If someone had asked me whether I wanted to become a writer, I wouldn’t have known what to say. I was already writing.
I wrote stories. I wrote poetry. I wrote plays. I wrote scripts for my favorite TV shows. I wrote articles for my school’s newspaper. I wrote histrionic rants in my diary. I never imagined myself becoming a writer, because I already was a writer. Writing was something I did, often without even thinking about it or planning around it. I ate, I slept, I got crushes on boys, I brushed my teeth. I breathed. I wrote.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I considered the possibility of making a career out of my writing. Abandoning the actress dream after taking a couple of acting courses my freshman year and realizing I lacked the talent needed to succeed in that career, I signed up for a playwriting class, mostly because I used to see the professor who taught playwriting when I walked through the theater building and he looked cool.
As it turned out, he was cool. He was a phenomenal teacher. And one day, without my knowledge, he entered a one-act play I’d written for class into a playwriting contest, and it won. I was stunned; I hadn’t even known of the contest’s existence, let alone considered entering it. I was even more stunned when I learned that my first-place prize included a monetary award.
I’d always written. But now I realized that I could get paid for doing what I was already doing anyway.
That was when I set aside all those other possible careers. As it happened, I was really struggling in my Russian class, so the UN translator gig didn’t seem likely. To become a Supreme Court justice, I’d have to attend law school, which I wasn’t absolutely opposed to, but I wasn’t crazy about the idea, either. And forget about becoming a veterinarian. All those bio and chem prerequisites? No way!
My playwriting-contest win had proved that someone was willing to pay me to write. This was like someone paying me to sleep or eat or brush my teeth or breathe. How sweet was that?
I wound up working as a playwright for the next ten years. Sometimes someone paid me for my writing. Sometimes no one did. I took other jobs to make ends meet while I wrote. Along with my plays, I also kept writing short stories, novels, poetry and essays. When I wasn’t writing one thing, I was writing another thing. I wasn’t becoming a writer. I was a writer, doing what writers do. When I got tired of writing plays, I turned my full focus to novel writing, which I’ve been doing for the past twenty-plus years. But plays or novels, fiction or poetry, I’ve just kept writing.
I know a lot of writers. Some, like me, are published. Some aren’t. Some work at other jobs to make ends meet. Some make enough money from their writing not to need outside jobs. Some write only on weekends. Some write at night. Some write nine-to-five, then turn off their computers and punch out for the day.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of the writers I know say that they want to be writers. In fact, some wish they weren’t writers. Writing is hard. It’s physically and emotionally demanding. It can break your heart, and often does. The pay is erratic and it doesn’t include health insurance. Why would anyone choose this life? Surely becoming a Supreme Court justice can’t be as hard as writing.
We don’t choose to write. If anything, writing chooses us. Writers think in words. Without prompting, our brains spin plots. Characters invade our thoughts and beg us to tell their stories. We scribble notes on napkins, on the margins of the magazines we’re reading, along the edges of our shopping lists. We walk past a house, peer into a window and suddenly our minds fill with stories about the people we imagine living inside.
This is what we do. This is what we are. We don’t “become” writers. We just write.