That’s quite a loaded question, isn’t it? It’s also a question I don’t have a definitive answer to, in case you’re someone who came looking for that. I don’t think anyone can answer it for anyone else; the best I can do here is tell you what it means to me and hope you take something from it, whether it’s enjoyment, inspiration, or something more useful.
There is an image we have, as a culture, of writers. Several images, in fact. We like to think of the rockstar writer, who makes millions selling his screenplays, and turns up at premieres in the flashy cars, with an escort on each arm. Or we like to think of the solitary genius, locked away with a typewriter, in a smoky room with a glass of scotch, narrating their entire novel in an inner monologue that sounds like a young, sexy Jack Nicholson. Sadly, neither of those are true. At least, not true for me. So, here we go. What does it mean to be a writer?
It means writing what you know.
One of the most common piece of advice I’ve heard is to write what I know. But, nobody ever takes the time to explain what that means. Does it mean I should write a story about an IT Helpdesk Operator for a small company? Probably not, it wouldn’t make for an interesting story, but it is what I know.
What I don’t know is how it feels to exist as a minority (in the case of my story, women) in a post-apocalyptic world. But I know how it felt to be bullied and cast out in school. Those feelings are compatible, and it’s enough to empathise with the characters I’ve created. The rest I can fill in for myself. Speaking of which…
It means imagining what you’ve never experienced.
I’ve never been shot. My characters have, multiple times. I’m not such a method writer that I’m willing to take a bullet to the leg so I know what it feels like. I assume if you’re going to be a writer, you’ve got a good imagination, so put that bad boy to work. Being shot probably hurts, so figure out a way to get that down on the page in an interesting manner.
Occasionally, I come across situations in my writing where I don’t have a good point of reference, so I have to research it. To give a recent example, I had no idea how to improvise a bullet removal surgery. Or, an example from a different story, I didn’t know how much blood could be extracted from a person without that person dying.
There should be a quiz game: “Does this search term come from the internet history of a writer, or a serial killer?”
It means spending your life in a fantasy world.
Writing a novel is a long project. And even when I’m not writing, I often find myself thinking about writing. It means a lot of daydreaming, not quite existing in this world for hours at a time, because I’m too busy being the god of my own.
This happens a lot when I’m performing tasks that don’t require a lot of thought. The cliché about the writer figuring stuff out in the shower, or on the toilet? True. Sometimes even while driving. I’ve been driving for nearly six years now, so it’s become an autonomous process, freeing up my mind to wander a little. Scary, but true.
It means spending your life in the real world.
How else are you going to create a real feeling world if you don’t take the time to live a little in this one? Go to school, get a job, interact with people, have sex. Characters in stories don’t just exist to serve the plot, they all have lives and aspirations and dreams of their own. They are people, and the only way to know how to write people is to go and experience being a person.
I wouldn’t expect a comic artist to only take inspiration from comic art, and I wouldn’t expect a fantasy writer to only take inspiration from Brandon Sanderson novels. Inspiration exists everywhere, whether it’s a huge news story, or simply noticing the way trees move in a slight wind.
It means being lonely.
One of the more unfortunate aspects of the writing experience is that I prefer to write in silence. I don’t like writing in front of a television, or while other people are trying to talk to me. I spend hours of my life in my bedroom, either at my desk or on my bed, usually in my pyjamas, just slogging away at whatever project I’m working on.
Writing is creatively fulfilling, and I do enjoy it more than just about anything, but sometimes when I’m working alone in the dead of night, I wish I’d picked a passion that allowed for more direct interaction with people. It’s lonely, and I think that’s what pushes a lot of people away from it. On the other hand…
It means being surrounded by people.
I’d have never gotten through NaNoWriMo if it weren’t for the support of different writing groups and people. At the time, I gave a shout out to the NaNoWriMo, Writing, Writersgroup and various other subreddits, but there were a lot of local people, and friends on Twitter all doing the same thing, and ready at any time to lend support. I’m still in contact with a fair few of them, and can definitely say they have enriched my life. I don’t want to start doing individual call outs, but if you’re reading this, you know who you are.
There are hundreds of thousands of people around the world doing this same thing. It’s a massive community, and with more options to network than ever before in the entirety of human history, there’s no reason not to seek others out, to lend your support, to seek support in return, or to just make friends with a bunch of interesting, unique people.
It means feeling depressed.
Another sad truth, but there’s a reason depression is known as the artistic temperament. I don’t have a link to the research to hand, but I believe there is a link between people who work in the arts and a higher percentage of mental illnesses such as depression.
There are days when it’s hard. There are days where finding every single word is a struggle, and by the end I hate what I’ve written and want to delete the whole thing and find a new project because this one sucks and I hate it so much. People scoff at the idea of writing being exhausting, since we’re just sat here, typing words, right? Wrong. It’s emotionally and mentally draining, often because it means exploring my own feelings, and laying them out on the page for everyone to see, albeit from the perspective of one of my characters. But after one of these days, I have to sigh and move on, because soon I know I’ll experience the opposite…
It means feeling on top of the world.
Oh, joy of joys and glory! There’s days where the words flow and never stop, and instead of struggling to hit 500, I have to force myself to take a break after a few thousand. Every word fits neatly into place, every piece of dialogue is witty and sharp, every description is perfect. These days don’t come often, but when they do, I grab hold of them as hard as I can and write until my fingers fall off. There’s really no better feeling.
It means killing your darlings.
Another often quoted piece of writing advice, “kill your darlings” means when you get stuck in a story, it’s often the idea that’s bogging you down is the one that’s your absolute favourite. The one flash of genius that needs to be included at all costs, even if it means reworking entire sections of your plot, making hours, days, weeks of extra work because that one idea just has to make it no matter…
You know what? Maybe just get rid of the idea. There’ll always be other, better ones, and if the whole plot has to be reworked to factor it in, it’s either not fitting organically or the whole thing will end up a confusing mess.
It means preserving your darlings.
On the other hand, there has to be a reason you love the idea so much, right? I know I’ve had stories turn out for the best because I doggedly refused to let go of an idea I knew would work. It’s a gamble, and one I’ve become better at predicting the risks and rewards of. Sometimes I’ll discard an idea only to find a place for it later on, or even in a different story. It’s all subjective, go nuts and see what happens.
It means running a marathon.
The very thought of running puts me off. It’s really boring, just running alone, not a whole lot to see because you live in the area anyway, but… Oh yeah. Writing.
I’ve noticed a novel is like an endurance run. It’s all about staying focused on that end goal for an extended period of time, not letting yourself become distracted, lest you lose sight of it. It happened to me. I finished NaNo on November 27th. Then I took a break until December 1st. Which became a Christmas break. Which became a New Years break. I’m back on the track now, maintaining a steady pace, but it was touch and go for a while there.
It means running a sprint.
Quick! 500 words, 15 minutes! Right now! GO GO GO!
Well, maybe not quite. To keep up with the NaNo theme for a second, writing 2000 words a day often felt like a series of mini sprints rather than a marathon. I didn’t have time to look back and see what I was doing, just had to sprint that little bit further every day. It all built up, but at the time it felt like working piecemeal. It was a relatively small sprint every day, but it all added to a larger whole.
It means being scared.
Writing can be a terrifying process. That stuff I said earlier about confronting feelings? I wasn’t joking, and baring all of that for my friends, and hopefully the world, to see is gut wrenching. The prospect of people knowing me, knowing my strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, it all scares me to death.
There are times where all I want to do is step outside myself and create characters I can never understand or empathise with. When I do, this tends to be for villains who are seven shades of fucked up, people I wouldn’t want to put anything of me into. But for my other characters, they all take aspects of me, whether good or bad. And that kind of openness and honesty will always come with fear.
It means being fearless.
This probably isn’t an accurate title, but all that about being scared? Shove it down. Shove it right down. If I’m going to tell a good story with well rounded characters, I need to let go of that fear or bury it deep. That’s what it’s about, telling a story, and fear just gets in the way of that.
It means fucking writing.
This is what it all comes down to, isn’t it? I write every day, therefore I can call myself a writer. I’m not a professional writer, but I’m a writer, because I write. I love writing, more than anything. Even if someone visited me from the future and told me I’ll never make it, never sell a book to an agent, I’d still write. And surely that’s the point, right?
I’ve had people tell me they want to be a writer, but hate the act of writing. I can’t understand that. I likely never will. Creating worlds, populating them with characters, and telling a story with them is my favourite thing to do. I fucking love writing despite all the shit and contradiction that comes with it, and that’s what being a writer means to me.