On Deciding You’re a Writer by Maegan Poland
My first book, a collection of short stories titled What Makes You Think You’re Awake?, was just published, and I’m nearly forty years old. Many publish their first book later in life, but I often see younger writers fretting about their age as it pertains to their publication record thus far. I remember being in my twenties in Los Angeles, writing my screenplays and working jobs that became less and less satisfying. I eventually left LA to focus on writing fiction. I’d always planned to make that transition at some point, but failing to launch a successful screenwriting career hastened my pivot to an MFA in fiction at the University of Mississippi.
For the first two years, I didn’t even consider submitting my work. I was just reading and practicing and learning. But I felt the creeping need for validation, which I thought would come from publishing my work. I succumbed to that insidious falsehood that if I just did x, y, or z, then I would be a “real writer.” Friends who had already published would tell me not to worry, that I was just getting started, but I had already been dedicated to my writing for over ten years; I’d just focused on a different genre. This idea that I was “just getting started” made me feel even more unworthy of declaring myself a writer.
Then a famous writer (let’s call him Richard Fjord) came to teach at my MFA program. On the first day he told us (now I’m paraphrasing since several years have passed) that he would not tell us if we were good or bad writers, and he would not tell us if we should quit writing, unless we asked him to. I was elated. I figured I was off the hook. I would never ask and therefore I’d never hear a crushing verdict from Richard Fjord that I wasn’t worthy of calling myself a writer. A classmate made the mistake of asking Fjord if he was a good writer, and he got the disappointing response that I had feared I would receive if I were so brazen as to pose the question. Later, though, I wondered if perhaps Fjord’s whole point was that no one should ever ask. Maybe I had already passed the test; I refused to ask because I knew I was going to keep writing anyway, so why seek a verdict that might just cause me to lose momentum and lick my wounds for a month or two? Perhaps I’d given up screenwriting, but I never could give up writing.
I’m happiest when I commit to writing as a ritual, a spiritual act of meeting the task with the faith that my persistent puzzling over the words and images will yield an elevated sense of awareness. I want the writing process to reveal the unexpected, to allow room for discovery. When this is my goal, the writing works.
When I forget this, the anxiety of “being a good writer” takes over. I think about my age and the publication rate. It turns out that accomplishing x, y, and z is not enough to feel validated. If you’re like me, one of your favorite writers can pick your manuscript in a contest and you can still doubt yourself. I’m also left with anxiety about my future writing: How long will it take me to finish this novel draft? Is that fast enough? Am I even a writer if it takes this long to publish my next book?
If I am honest, I will always oscillate between the centered place of ritual and the anxious need for validation. When I place too much importance on the external measures of worth, I have to return to the ritual. It is a matter of commitment and faith. There cannot be any other option. The writing must happen. It will work. I will not ask anyone else for permission. This self-declaration also is an act of faith — a part of the ritual that has to be reenacted each day. Turn off the internet for a bit. Stop comparing timelines. Don’t ask Richard Fjord if you should keep writing. Just write.