What Being a Writer Really Means

It’s the same every semester. I teach college writing across NJ, and every semester without fail, a student will come up to me after I’ve just finished a discussion on rhetorical principles like narration or description and ask something like “How can I get a book published?” or the even more nebulous “How do I become a Writer.”

So I give the student the Spark Notes version of my spiel, about how the Writer’s life is a lonely, oftentimes empty one; how a Writer must be dedicated and faithful to the written words he or she presses down on the page, clicks onto the computer screen; how in times of even the thickest “Writer’s Block” the Writer will hammer the heaviest of leaden words into the wall until it cracks enough so this Writer-Warrior can crash through it with the power of a freight train hauling “boxcars, boxcars, boxcars” of new and fresh messages that must reach the destination of a published book, newspaper headline, or movie theater’s marquis.
For any student who hasn’t thrown on his or her coat by now and left tracks leading to the classroom door, I belt out a harangue about how arduous a task it is to find a publisher who’ll look at his or her foot any differently than the 12 other pairs of feet keeping the door ajar with late night manuscripts; how a Writer’s shoes can’t be fitted like Bobo’s or Bill Gates’, but must glow like an alien from the 11th dimension, its foot colored by shoes that show off all the individuality in each of its seventeen toes, plus the rhyme and reason behind each and every toenail; how there’s the possibility of self-publication through myriad websites like CreateSpace, and how that’s all fine and good, but how that option also comes with it own set of perils. “Nice book, John,” critics and colleagues will snicker and sip their cocktails, “but it’s not a real book!”
Being a Writer is hard. Writers know this. People who want to be Writers don’t. The problem is that the students who want to be writers are the same students whose pages I slash up with scratches of blue ink because despite the quality of the content, they are a toxic ocean of textspeak, a wasteland of grammatical errors and sentence fragments where modifiers dangle around like half-chopped heads in a Rob Zombie picture. Don’t even get me started on the amount of comma traffic. And apostrophes? They seem to being going the way of dodo.
These are the ones who want to publish a book. Who want to be Writers. But in all sincerity, they probably won’t. Why? It’s pretty simple: They don’t enjoy writing enough to learn the craft of writing. Most of these students may dabble in poetry or have written a short story once; some even maintain blogs which many times have as many grammatical problems as they do subscribers. A Writer is a different species altogether. Whether it’s a single poem or a ten page essay on global warming from a Neo-Marxist standpoint, a Writer must immerse him- or herself in the work; he or she must enjoy jotting down those first words that will be replaced later by two even more accurate words that say the same thing more effectively or poetically, and perhaps in fewer words. This is the Writer’s life.
Case in point: My creative writing courses teem with some similar students, those who want to be Writers. But then there are those in class who actually are Writers. Here’s the difference: The Writers realize that to be Writers, they have to constantly practice. They have to write. They accept the fact that they have to make writing a habit and nurture it. They see truth in my analogy “Writing is to the Writer as junk is to William S. Burroughs” (who, coincidentally, was also addicted to writing.) Writing is a drug, so that when Writers don’t do it, they can’t function properly, go through withdrawals, even start doubting themselves. Without pen pressed to page, the Writer falls to pieces bit by bit. None of these students ever ask me “How do I publish a book” or “How do I become a Writer?” They’re already on the path. They walk into the classroom and I teach them about craft, and they use that honed skill to mold their content more effectively and make it sing. They already carry journals where ever they go, unafraid to fire off a few rounds of verbal ammunition into it or explode a few thought-bombs here and there; they know it’s target practice. They know the more they get, the better their aim will become so that when they’re face to face with a publisher, their manuscript will shine. They are the ones who will be published, guaranteed.
And when the publishers ask the Writer to rewrite or polish up the draft he or she had submitted, or suggests they add this or take out that, the Writer will smirk, go home, and continue where they left off, already halfway through the rewrite. The Writer never stops writing.
So if you want to publish a book or be a Writer, my advice to you is simple and straightforward: Just Write.
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