I just met a lovely woman who says she's considering starting a blog. She's not sure exactly what she wants to write about, but she knows she wants a place to sort of "put" her thoughts on all sorts of things. "But," she said, "who'd even want to read it?"
While I reminded her there are all types of readers looking for all kinds of insights, the only way she'll ever learn who enjoys reading her work is by putting it out there. It's really that simple.
Whenever we write, it's a leap into the great unknown. I took that leap seven years ago, at the age of 40, without any formal training in blogging or journalism. After blogging for several months, I was asked to write a weekly column for a local news source and did that for four years. During that time, I also wrote a novel (it's still unpublished), started another blog (this one), debuted my first website, learned how to write press releases and business plans, went to as many writers' conferences and workshops that I could afford, started performing stories live on stage and launched a bi-monthly writers' retreat. Then, another news organization offered me a weekly column with a larger audience -- for double the pay. At that point, I started recording interviews with my subjects and began a podcast series. Along the way, I've tried to learn as much as I can about writing.
It's been 7 years, and I'm paid $100 for every weekly column I write. Other than that, I don't earn a dime. At least not yet.
So why keep doing it? Why keep going when I'm spending more (on conferences, inkjet cartridges, and printing) than I earn?
Because I LOVE it and I know this is all part of the process of being a writer.
I used to have this illusion that I'd get published within a year of finishing my novel, and that Oprah would LOVE my story. It only took me 3 years (and Oprah's TV finale) to realize how unrealistic I was. Getting published WILL happen someday. I won't give up that dream. I just don't need someone's endorsement to make me feel fulfilled; I already feel that way as a writer. I mean, how lucky am I that I get to do what I love without strings attached? No one ever tells me what I have to write. No one's looking over my shoulder, either...which is terrifying and lovely, depending on my mood and motivation.
Here are the 7 things I know about writing:
1. Say yes to everything. If you're going to be a writer, accept every opportunity -- especially the ones that feel scary and impossible. Do you think I knew how to blog? To write a weekly column? To write a novel? Seven years ago I was a preschool teacher. I sat in a circle on a rug and sang songs like "Roll The Ball" and "Sleeping Little Bunnies" to toddlers in diapers. I didn't have a clue, but I asked a lot of questions, which leads me to #2.
2. Writers want to help you, plus you're their BEST excuse to procrastinate. I'm only sort of kidding. Writers are genuinely helpful toward the newbies like us, so if you admire a writer, let her know. Chances are, if you send her a message on social media, you'll hear back. I once wrote to Mary Schmich, a columnist with The Chicago Tribune, asking how she'd developed a thick skin. I was getting attacked by someone who disagreed with one of my columns, and the insults were hurtful, ugly and deeply personal. Mary responded that day and boosted my spirits with humor and a no-nonsense recommendation to keep chugging along. To my great disappointment, I accidentally deleted the email, but I still carry her encouragement with me.
3. Writing is the world's last and greatest low-paying profession. What other career allows you to do the job you love in an airplane, in your bed (don't answer that), on a boat, on the floor of a middle school hallway waiting for parent teacher conferences, or in the back seat of your minivan on a family road trip? What other job gives you the flexibility to be alone when you crave silence and the camaraderie of an established tribe when it all feels too much? No response? Didn't think so.
4. Less analysis = more authenticity. It's taken me a long time to back away from the "delete" key while I'm writing something for the first time (this sentence included), but it gets easier the more you practice. It's never gonna come out perfect the first time, so just write through the crap and get it all down. You can always go back and fix it, but get those words on the page or the monitor so you've got something to fix. You'll never capture your true voice unless you let it flow, uncensored. Don't worry about what your mother or your boss or your son will think while you're drafting. They're not the boss of you when you're writing. Yes, you may have to edit, but that's an entirely different list, called "7 things I know about editing," but I'm not an editor. I'm a writer.
5. Identify A Mentor (or more than one if you can swing it). We're not talking about a Svengali who always agrees with you and screams, "I LOVE YOUR WRITING!" I'm talking about someone who'll say, "You know what? You've lost your edge. You're better at the human interest stuff." A mentor tells it to you straight and asks the tough questions, like, "Didn't you say you'd have half your novel revised by now?" and then hands you a tissue when you feel like a failure. A mentor is that special person who's gone before you on this crazy path and lived to tell the story while still being just as interested in your perspective on the journey.
6. Striking a chord/going viral isn't something you set out to do. It just happens when you put your heart into your writing. Viral pieces often have a filterless tone. When I wrote a column about a local school discouraging girls from wearing leggings, I described how wrong I felt the administrators were. I didn't care if they disagreed with my position. It mattered that the kids had someone on their side to deliver their version of the story to a wider audience. I whipped that column together in no time, then uploaded it. Overthinking it probably would have diluted the message. The same thing happened when I wrote a 3-part column about my son's skateboarding accident: I didn't stop to rewrite or consider the tone or the flow (or the length! sheesh!), but I wrote from the heart, and the feedback I got was astounding. I heard things like, "I felt like I was right there with you," and "I was so worried...I had to read the whole thing before I could exhale." Feedback like that proves it's worth putting your head and heart as close as possible to your subject matter and your story.
7. Don't worry about how successful others are or how much more they've accomplished. I used to get so bummed about what a "late" start I'd gotten as a writer, how much better/more professional/more interactive/more visually appealing others' websites were. I'd think, "The great writers never had to deal with Twitter Accounts." Just remember: you're a writer, and every writer started somewhere, with one word. The rest of the stuff, like the book deals, the websites, the movie rights -- really??? Do you think JK Rowling actually wanted to spend her valuable writing time on the set of SEVEN Harry Potter movie sets while reviewing licensing contracts for Hogwarts merchandise?
Just be grateful you're safe and secure, here in the trenches, with no pressure other than to write from your heart. The rest will come if you commit to trying.
Best of luck to you, and please let me know how you're doing (see #2 above).
Christine Wolf is a freelance columnist for the Chicago Tribune Media Group's Pioneer Press. As a community activist, Christine creates platforms allowing others to share their voices. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, their three children and two very vocal dogs.
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