Real Isn’t How You Were Made, It’s Something That Happens to You

The other night, while I was trying to get some writing done, and really struggling, and had gone through all of my usual techniques for getting my head into the right place, I took a break, and stuck this little note to my keyboard. 

I’ve talked a lot about not being a “real writer.” I’ve never actually been able to define what a “real writer” is in my mind though. A year ago, when I began this writing journey, I expressed to Adam the very vague goal of “become a better writer.” I was clear about a few things. “Real writer” didn’t have anything to do with payment or publication and those weren’t goals I had in mind at the time. I didn’t have a genre in mind, I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have a story or a character or anything. All I had was time, and an interest in writing.

 He gave me two rules to follow. “You must make mistakes. You must finish something.” There have been plenty of mistakes over the past year. Whether I’ve finished something or not depends on what your definition of “finished” is. I’ve written one or two poems that are at a point where I could submit them somewhere if I found the right place… I honestly haven’t done much looking yet. I’ve written a bunch of narrative essays, some of them very, very personal, which have been released to the world and some of which I’d consider submitting somewhere…if I found the right place.

I spent months arguing that I wasn’t really a writer. Six months ago, I finally stopped arguing about it and began tentatively using the label sometimes. A few months after that, “poet” crept into conversations when I talked about my own work. I dabbled with a few short stories, but found myself returning again and again to the narrative essays I share here and poetry as the places I’m most comfortable, and told myself that I don’t have to keep trying to force myself into writing things that don’t feel right… and there are all kinds of ways that things don’t feel right sometimes. Sometimes it’s a poem or an essay that I’ll start and it’s just not working. It took many, many months though, to convince me to just file these unfinished projects away for later, and not to just delete or destroy them. To me, they were signs of failure–of all the ways I’m not really a writer. But they’re not emblems of my failures as a writer. They’re lessons in finding my voice. They’re lessons in how to listen. When I learned to knit, I had to learn how to find a dropped stitch and repair it, carefully using a crochet hook to follow the pattern to make sure that knits went where knits were supposed to go and purls went where they were supposed to. Until I could do that, it meant a project had to wait until someone who could do that for me was available…or I had to frog (rip back) the whole thing until I got to the mistake and did it over again. Some of the things I’ve started are just resting until they can be fixed. Some will languish like my “naughty knitting pile”–the projects I’ve started and just can’t finish for some reason… the pattern bores me or it’s poorly written, or it just no longer suits the kind of knitting I want to do… and one of these days I’ll take the things in that pile, yank the needles out and frog the projects, salvaging the yarn I can salvage, putting the needles away for other projects, and carefully collecting the stitch markers to use again. And some, I’ll fly right through, beginning to end, with a few breaks in between to rest my hands or to correct a mistake or buy more yarn or the right buttons or something. A long time ago someone taught me the difference between a process knitter and a project knitter. Process knitters knit for the experience of creating something, for learning new techniques, figuring out stitches. Project knitters knit for the beauty of the finished object. They’re about casting on their projects and seeing them all the way through to the end. I’ve always been a process knitter. I’m in it for the experience of creating something, for how it works, for new ways that I can do things. I love the finished objects I turn out, but that’s not nearly as exciting as the process. Writing has some of the same process/product dichotomy, and I’m working on learning to appreciate both the process and the product….because whether or not I finish pieces, I’m learning from writing them. 

I’ve taken a cheesegrater to my soul a few times over the last year… and written openly about some difficult things. I’m glad I’m able to be that vulnerable in the words I put on paper, but it’s very scary. I have no idea who might read it, who might misquote it or misunderstand it. I have no idea what criticism might be levied about it. When I wrote about my experience as a rape survivor and why it’s important to me to use the word rape I was prepared to experience some backlash… the typical victim blaming type things about things I should have or could have done differently. I wasn’t expecting to have someone Tweet at me and tell me that what I wrote was pornography. That was yet another learning experience along the way. There’s nothing more that I can say about that. I shrugged, shared the Tweet with a few people and said, “Well, I can assume that this person didn’t actually read the piece.” For a negative response that was a pretty mild one… not bad for a first experience, and good practice for harsher criticism that will undoubtedly come as I share more work.

Some days writing is hard for me. Some days the words don’t flow, or I don’t know what to write about. I’ve been persistent though… there have been very few days in the last year where I haven’t written anything or at least tried to. Some days I can’t hear my own voice. It’s really surprising to me that the one thing I don’t remember feeling at all is “I don’t want to write.” Sometimes it’s “I don’t want to write right now,” during time I have blocked out for writing, but even when I’ve been dealing with major pain flare ups or fibro fog, it’s not “I don’t want to write.” There have been days when I couldn’t write and those days are emotionally painful (whether or not they’re also physically painful,) and frustrating. I feel angry and sad at the way that some things are difficult or impossible at times because I’m living with several chronic illnesses, but it doesn’t make me want to do those things any less, (nor does it make the fact that I do the things I do any more inspiring; I’m not here to be your inspiration porn). 

A year of persistence, thousands and thousands of words, and I’m no closer to defining what being a “real writer” means than when I started. I have found a voice I didn’t know I had–one that has allowed me to participate in the process of editing my own work and standing up for the choices I’ve made sometimes, knowing that some of my choices are very deliberate. I can give better feedback to other writers whose work I’m reading. I do a lot of editing for my brother now, too, but when I do, the kind of things I look for, the suggestions I make have changed as my own writing has changed. The feedback I get on my own writing is different now, too. When I first started writing, there were often so many more pink squiggles and comments. There are fewer squiggles now. I would have predicted that the difference in editorial feedback would make me feel something positive. Instead, it makes me nervous and takes me back to my “not a real writer” headspace, right back where I started. So many things take me back to those feelings of being a fraud, not just the times when I’m struggling to get words on paper or to find the thread I need to pick up so that I can keep writing. I journey back to the place where I was overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy. When writing becomes difficult, those feelings of not being a real writer, a hyper awareness of all of my own inadequacies come flooding back. I feel ghostly grey-green fingers of fear prying my hands away from the keyboard, and like Blofeld in a James Bond film or Dr. Claw in an Inspector Gadget cartoon, the fingers come with a voice–in my head it sounds a little like Scar in The Lion King telling me that I’m failing at my task, that I can’t do it, that I’m not a writer and I never will be. Surprisingly, the biggest lesson I’ve learned from telling all these stories in the last year isn’t about how to be a writer at all. It’s about how to take up space. The first place I have to take up space is in my own head…learning to do that makes me a better writer, a better editor, a better advocate for myself 

I’ve learned to wrestle with the voice and win often enough now. That’s not the whole entire match though. I know that in order to keep growing as a writer, I need to keep taking risks, but I just don’t know what’s next. I wonder sometimes if uncertainty about what comes next is part of the problem. Am I feeding those haunting voices with my uncertainty?

I’m doing what I can to build a team that will help hold back those voices…it starts with me in the lead and seeking out an expanded circle of mentors and guides. I’m looking for opportunities to connect with other groups of writers who can help me grow. I’ve submitted a microstory for publication so I can get the very first rejection out of the way… and when I figure out where to send things to, I’ll send out more, and I’ll try and focus on the idea that my words might have a positive impact on someone, that they might help someone learn about an issue they didn’t know about, change their mind about something, find peace or comfort with something painful. I want my words to do something good. In order for any of that to happen, I need to find ways to set the words free into the world…and not to be too scared of the results.

I stuck that little reminder onto my keyboard to keep myself focused, because it’s easy to become discouraged sometimes. I rest my right wrist on it, and often, my elbow on a cat. If I remember what the Velveteen Rabbit says, “Real isn’t how you were made, it’s something that happens to you,” I don’t need to know what it means to be a “real writer.” I need to keep my eyes on the goal I started with–”to be a better writer,” and to remember the rules from the very beginning: “You must make mistakes. You must finish something.” If “real writer” is an actual destination, instead of just moving goal posts… I guess I’ll know it when I get there. 

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