Writing used to be easy. Remember in kindergarten, the teacher would say, “Just write a story.” And you’d sit down with a crayon and let it flow. The story would end up being ridiculous; it would jump around from a kid walking down the street in sentence one to a dragon in outer space by sentence three.
Words were misspelled. The R’s were usually backward, Toys R Us style. And there was no plot, no symbolism, no “literary motifs.”
But there was action. And dialogue. And, most importantly, a tangible first draft that we really enjoyed putting together.
Then something happened. And it wasn’t all at once. In elementary school you would still get prompts like, “What do you want for Christmas?” or “What did you do over the summer?” and that was still pretty fun. But at some point, a teacher introduced the assignment, “Give me 500 words on this topic that you don’t really care about.” And at that moment writing became a chore.
The 500-word essay evolves into the evil villain known as the “Five Paragraph Essay.” Where the kindergarten teacher used to say, “Just write a story,” this new assignment zaps all the fun out of writing and turns it into a painfully structured motion. Here’s your intro paragraph, here’s your supporting points, now let’s wrap it up with a conclusion paragraph. Rinse and repeat. On to the next paragraph. And so help me, if you misplace one comma on that Works Cited page, I am sending you right off to plagiarism jail.
Five paragraph essays. Essays for books you were forced to read. College entrance essays, where it’s not really about telling a story anymore, it’s about looking for the proper formatting, finding the right buzzwords, ending up with some stale write-up about major obstacles in life. Post-college, write a cover letter. At work, write some emails. Hi so-and-so, hope you’re having a good week. I’m just following up on an email I sent last week.
The only time writing is fun again is the occasional Facebook rant or diving into a poem on the annual Christmas card.
Or, if you are like me, and you’re the weirdo who loved writing all the way through school, plus you had some incredible English teachers from Kindergarten through college, there’s a different problem that emerges.
What are you going to DO with writing? What are you going to DO with an English degree?
These are valid questions. Not once did we have a recruiter visit campus who said, “Hey, I’ve got $75,000 a year if anyone wants to like, write novels and blog every day. Anyone interested?”
So I began to make adjustments. “I love writing; maybe I could be a [blank].” Write for a newspaper. A magazine. Go into public relations. How about copywriting. Or what about marketing, sales, those are like telling a story? Right? Or, you know what, oooh, I got it! I like to read. I like to write. Maybe I should look at law school. Eh? Maybe?
Again, not a bad thing. We’ve got to pay the bills and finding something that aligns with our skillsets makes sense, both from a financial and an “I don’t want to hate my job” perspective.
But it’s still, at best, an imitation. Like even if you get the job at the newspaper, you still have to start out with, “Give me 500 words on this topic you don’t really care about.” Sure, you can work your way up, grind it out, hope that ten years from now writing is fun again (or that the publication still exists.)
And this is where [take your pick motivational speaker/author] comes in with an article on LinkedIn. It’ll say something like:
“Life’s too short to hate your job” and “For example, if you love to write, then do that! Do the thing you love. The thing that you could spend ten hours on and not even notice the time passing by. Look, gatekeepers are dead. No one can stop you. You can write your book today and get it up on Amazon. Self-publishing is the new gold rush. Look at this guy, he made a million dollars off his last book. Look at her, she’s raking in $25,000 a week. Follow your passion, and you can make more money than you ever thought possible!”
On the surface, this looks like the kindergarten teacher telling us, “Just write a story.” Follow your calling. But it’s different. And I’m not even going to focus on the danger here of quitting a job and then looking at a book that’s sold ten copies, wondering, “Oh crap, what have I done?”
No. Let’s imagine for a second that this strategy was 100 percent effective. That you were guaranteed to make a million dollars on your self-published book. Would you do it? Would I do it? Of course. Everyone would.
But now “writing” has become the means to an end. It’s a more lucrative value prop, but it’s the same formula as write this to get a good grade. Write this to get into a good school. Write this to get a good job.
That’s why I say writing has a marketing problem.
It is never marketed as just a fulfilling hobby. Like, what if writing was marketed the way people promote yoga?
“Do this for the fun of the process.”
“Do this for how you feel during, and how relaxed you feel after.”
“Do this because you want to say namaste out loud in a group.”
What’s holding back this “writing as a hobby” approach isn’t teachers, or colleges, or motivational LinkedIn personalities. The people holding this back are actually writers themselves. Writers, we have a hard time listing “writing” as a casual hobby, because if someone were to say, “Cool, your hobby is writing, mine is playing video games,” we’d be like, “Woah, woah, huge difference there buddy. Huuuge difference!”
But I can’t really say it’s a vocation either. If I do, the first question is, “Oh, cool, how much money are you making with it?” And if the answer is $0 or a couple hundred bucks, that disqualifies it from being a “real” job.
So if it’s not really a hobby, but it’s not really a job, then what is it?
It’s hard to market an undefined product, and that’s what’s going on here; we’re not really sure what writing is.
My suggestion, and not sure what word you’d want to use here, calling/practice/hobby/process/craft, but I’d say that writing is simply an act we should do 2-3 hours a day that transports us into another world; be it fantasy or just recalling memories.
Recalling the happiest times or the saddest moments. The gut-wrenching moments. The most embarrassing stuff. Writing down the story you’ve never told anyone else. The joke you were too nervous to tell at work. A sex scene that you’d never want your grandparents to see. Swearing as much as you want, or not at all, or nervously typing an f-bomb that you’ll eventually turn into the word “frick” but right now there it is babay, the big F-star-star-k. Writing down a hilarious story about your recent trip to the grocery store. Or writing because you’re devastated and that’s the only thing you can do right now.
And you’re not even thinking about an audience. Not thinking about how many copies this will sell. Just writing. Or typing. However you do it. Wondering, “Does anyone else ever wonder this? Does anyone else ever think about this? Has anyone ever gone through any of this.” And then sending it out only to find that thousands of people, or hundreds, or maybe just one person raises their hand and says, “Yes, exactly! Me too.”
That’s what writing is. That’s what writing should be. And that’s how I hope it can be marketed.
So forget about how to turn this all into a career. How to put together a sales pitch to the literary agent. How to get published, self-published, get into bookstores. How to quit your job and do this full-time. Forget all of that. The first step is just turning writing into a habit. A really fun, challenging, fulfilling habit.
Two to three hours a day. Whether that’s from 5 to 8 a.m. or midnight to 2, start there. And watch, just like the girl carrying her yoga mat, or the dude playing lunchtime basketball, or yeah, even the guy playing 2-3 hours of video games, watch as this writing hobby becomes your favorite time of the day.
What will it lead to? Who cares, because the process itself becomes the fun part (#TrustTheProcess Joel Embiid.) It’s like when you’re hooked on a book or binge-watching a TV show, you’re not asking, “Well, what am I achieving right now?” No. You’re in a flow and loving it.
So now imagine that same feeling, but instead of reading, instead of watching, you’re the one in the driver’s seat creating the story.
That’s why writing is pretty awesome.
And you know what, that kindergarten teacher had it right all along.
“Just write a story.”
Nine years ago I sat down to “Just write a story” and this week I finally, finally, reached the finish line. My first novel, Toilet Bowl, is officially up for sale here on Createspace or Amazon.com in book form or Kindle form. You can also break it up if you want by reading Book 1: Meet the Godfreys and Book 2: Tour de Bathroom.
What’s the story about? Check out the book trailer below.
For the next couple of weeks I will be doing a few posts focused on either the book or the writing process. If you would like to subscribe to the blog via email, enter your email address in the box below. Or send me an email at email@example.com. Thanks for stopping by, see you next week!