Snipe Hunting for Writers

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Ever since I learned to read, I’ve wanted to be a writer. For years, I’d daydream and talk about writing, but it was fantasy. It took a dash of midlife angst to make me, the Writer, a reality. In the last two years, I started writing for this blog and finished the first draft of a novel. It feels like I’m getting close to something. Or at the very least, I’m in the process of becoming something.

I used to imagine myself as a writer, hunched over a little wooden desk, pen gripped tightly in hand, sweating out each and every word. The floor would be littecanstockphoto4393908red with crumpled up paper. Perhaps I’d even be a little self-destructive and there would be an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts or a bottle of Glenlivet whiskey stashed in my bottom desk drawer. My mental picture was always an odd combination of the tortured artist and the hard-boiled detective.

In my writing fantasy, there was no husband, no child, no laundry, no lunches to be made, no other job that I was beholden to and no sense of obligation to anything but my art.  I’d be writing canstockphoto2088850from a taverna in Greece in between lovers (Efharistó Shirley Valentine) or up in a mountain camp, writing by firelight, while howling wolves served as white noise (someone read too much Hemingway). There would be no interruptions, no emergency phone calls to the dentist or plumber. There would be no stopping to answer work emails or texts from play date moms.

And the suffering…oh, there would be much of that. Tragic love affairs that would leave me no appetite, but plenty of material about which to write. Loneliness that would leave me looking haunted while madly productive. I’d be miserably poor, wearing shoes with holes in them and having to depend on the kindness of strangers (Will write for food). My art would be real because I suffered. No one told me I’d be a well fed, financially stable, relatively happy person with a loving family. How can I write with no hunger, no grief, no unending solitude?

My alma mater, the University of Iowa, is home to the nationally known Iowa Writer’s Workshop. While I was getting a degree in Russian Studies, it was like dating someone when I had a yen for one of his friends. I would read over the requirements for getting into the workshop repeatedly and longingly. Kurt Vonnegut once taught there. Many of my favorite writers were alumni – Flannery O’Connor, Wallace Stegner, Jane Smiley, Robert Penn Warren. I daydreamed about that program while suffering through courses on Russian Morphology and Semantics. Perhaps I lacked the commitment to be a writer.

And then there’s the smorgasbord of writing workshops, classes and online courses that I halfheartedly rambled through.canstockphoto9209863 I’ve found reason after reason to not like these venues, whether it be the deep/indecipherable work of others or my thin-skinned thoughts/obscenities upon getting critiqued. Or getting a signed copy of the teacher’s work, only to discover that what they had in teaching affability, they lacked in basic editing skills. I’m a spelling snob and rank amateur with a fragile ego. Maybe I don’t have the durability or collaborative skills to be a writer.

All of the above goes to say that these ideas of a writer’s life can be more discouraging than the actual work of writing. When I think about all the things other writers say they do – the groups and workshops and degrees, I feel like I might be missing the point. The dogma that bleeds through writing advice articles intimidates me. I would never refer to my art except in a mocking, falsely pompous voice.

This mythical creature, the writer as artist, has disappeared, only to be replaced by a multi-tasker writing frantic paragraphs between trips to the grocery store and school and appointments. I write when I can. And lately, I write because I can’t imagine not writing. It’s an emotional realization for me. Is this what being a writer means?

When I read a book that thrills me, I flip to the author bio. Part of me wishes I’d read “Jane Writer hasn’t done jack with her life up to this point and still managed to get published. She now lives in a little ranch house in the suburbs with her loving, but argumentative husband, messy child and ill-behaved cats. She has no writing degrees or work experience as a writer and she’s not planning on getting any.”

This idea of being a writer is surrounded by urban legend, misconceptions, romantic representation – a mythology that has, until recently, eluded me. Writing isn’t a cult of personality or accumulation of degrees. It’s like singing off-key in the shower – the true joy is private and in the doing. When I write, even if I’m struggling, I’m in a sacred, satisfying space. It’s the only place I’ve spotted that magical, elusive creature known as the Writer.

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What does being a writer mean to you?

58 Comments on “Snipe Hunting for Writers

  1. Nicely expressed. I write because I can’t imagine not writing – I believe that’s where the writer as artist resides. I noticed a long time ago that my favorite writers didn’t get MFAs; their daily struggles gave them something to say. Your ending reveals that you’re already there.

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    • Thanks for reading and commenting! I still, on occasion, struggle with this idea that I have to do, be, embrace more “writer-like” behaviors. I find that if I don’t write for a period of time, all the old mythology and doubts start creeping back in, but one writing session usually straightens me out!

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  2. Being a writer means writing. I hear so many people (including me at one time) say they want to write. Once I started writing though, there was no stopping me! When characters start invading my head, I have no choice but to write their story; I feel like I’m not making anything up but writing a story fed to be by the characters – I am merely a conduit for getting the story down on paper or computer screen.

    I had no preconceived notions about what kinds of lives writers lived; I never thought about the actual living part. I just assumed they were people like me who had a talent for writing.

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    • It’s a simple truth, but sometimes those are the hardest to see and accept. I’ve always been interested in artists’ lives, if only to maybe understand their point of view. Of course there are great arguments, and I’ve written about this, that their lives should be irrelevant to the work.
      Until you really dig in and write, though, there seems to me, to be something mystical about it from a distance. Procrastination (my great strength) helped fuel those myths – anything to avoid the actual work.
      It’s interesting that you talk about being a conduit for your characters. I’m sure there is a future post in this thought – how a person feels while writing can vary so widely. Singing is really the only apt description I can use for when I write.

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  3. Your mentioning of the “tortured” lifestyle of a writer reminded me of the TED talk I watched last night with Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). She gives an interesting look into creativity.

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  4. This is beautiful. You asked what being a writer means to me/us: I couldn’t say it better Michelle. It’s one of those rare times I’ll re-read a blog post because it sings to me. Kisses…

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    • Thanks, Bill. I’ve been really trying re-shape my writing focus and thinking about what it means, how it looks to me and what I need to let go of, to get to the good stuff. I have a few more posts on writing for the next couple of weeks – I’d love to hear your approach/opinion/perspective. I’m really digging in again. Always good to hear from you!

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  5. Your description of a writer was spot-on! It’s what I have always pictured a writer looking like, acting like, suffering, etc.
    Writing to me is personal. I haven’t been at it very long, because, well, like you said… life gets in the way. At first I thought I could never be a writer without being published or Freshly Pressed. I have a different outlook now. To be a writer you must write and you must care about what you write. If someone else likes your writing, that’s a bonus. But not required.
    This is one of those posts I will save to read again.

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    • Thanks for commenting, Ruth. As I gear up for another National Novel Writing Month in November, it’s made me very introspective about writing and the role it plays in my life. I’ve had to learn and re-learn over the last couple of years that my best work is what I like, regardless of other people’s feedback and that any time you try to cater to an audience, you end up with slush. I’m sure I have many more lessons to learn, but shaking off those old notions and forging our own paths is a big one!

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  6. What a great description, Michelle!

    Me, I’m lucky enough to get paid for writing, and have off and on for thirty years. But it’s not my stuff, not from my creative side. And it is dry as toast. It’s only in the last few years that I decided to try my hand at storytelling. And I’m having a blast. In between writing toast, that is.

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    • Thanks, Elyse. It would definitely be nice to be paid for writing, but I have a secret fear that should I actually start getting paid for it, the joy would evaporate. I’m sure creative writing feels like an oasis when you get paid to write toast, but what a great way to improve editing, spelling and grammar skills.

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  7. If you’re a newspaper reporter, writing means putting a blank sheet of copy paper in the typewriter. You light a cigarette, put it in the ashtray, and commence typing on the copy paper. Viola! You are producing copy to feed the copy editors, who will feed it to the composing room. At least, that’s the way it worked in my youth. Nowadays, you start with a blank computer screen and type on it. Amounts to the same thing. Except most of the copy desk and all of the printers have been eliminated from the process. If they’re not dead or retired, former copy editors and printers now work at Walmart. And “copy” is now called “content.”

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    • “Content” is one of those words that I find irritating – so symptomatic of the idea that everything has to be a commodity. I’m in a good writing place – I don’t have to meet deadlines or write on contract. I don’t know if I want to sell badly enough. At this point it seems enough to write. And there are venues to be read in that don’t require worrying about the market or a target audience. Good thing I have marketable job skills, though!

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  8. I have four children, and only in the last couple of years have I started to write regularly again. I think anyone is a writer who loves to write, period. But that doesn’t mean that I would describe myself that way. I have several friends who do call themselves writers (some published, some not) but it’s not a label I would use. I just like to write, the same way I like to read and cook. It’s a hobby, and I’m okay with that.
    You are a wonderful writer, by the way. Much better than many published authors whose books I’ve started and quickly discarded. I always wonder how so many bad writers get published (including some who include the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop in their bio, although I can’t think of any names off the top of my head!).

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    • I think I am at a hobby spot with writing as well and perhaps I will never be driven enough to be published. Right now, it doesn’t seem to matter, since the act of writing gives me pleasure. Even when I read disagreeable books that have been e- or traditionally published, I never think “well, I could have done better than that”. I imagine the worst book possible still requires a lot of hard work to format and market.

      Thanks for your kind words about my writing. I think it has improved over the last couple of years, but I have a long way to go. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of writer I am, in terms of genre or format (fiction vs. nonfiction, short story vs. novel, etc.). That’s part of the fun of writing on one’s own, with no market obligations – you can try your hand at any kind of writing.

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  9. Being a writer, becoming a writer, being a REAL writer, someday, means that, maybe, I’ll have done something worthwhile with my life. That maybe, I’ll have finally met all that unmet potential. It’s my hope. It’s my rope ladder out of a pit of despair. I’m laughing at myself for writing that. But it’s the honest, corny, melodramatic, sophomoric truth.

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    • It’s an honest assessment and one I think I would have made of myself in the past. It’s the “when I…then” mentality, believing in the ephemeral goal. From what I’ve read on your posts, Kylie, you are doing a great many worthwhile things – everything from parenting to standing up for what you believe in. Think of it all as wonderful material for when you’re ready to see yourself as a writer.

      Maybe it’s middle age or trying to hold onto some semblance of self amongst all the caretaking, but writing is an island for me. Seeing myself as a writer is really about self-care and protection. It keeps part of me from being subsumed by mother, wife, employee, caretaker, nurse, chauffeur – you know the drill. I’ve come to view it as necessary as a physical workout – all for the preservation of sanity!

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  10. Being a writer {to me} means living through the art of words. I write for enjoyment, for relief, for reflection, and for hope. I write to make myself happy, but mainly in hopes of offering an inspiring thought or reflection to the readers. Like you said, being a writer is encased in endless misconceptions and sliding scale beliefs. Maybe part of that is having us all individually define what being a writer means to us?

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    • I do think it’s a very individual journey. It’s strange in terms of writing for an audience. I like conversations that emerge from posts, but I keep returning to the singing idea. The mere opportunity to make noise that I like to hear seems to be where I’m at, having gone back and forth through several cycles of getting caught up in numbers and comments.

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  11. Marsha Sinetar writes with great insight about talent and all that it entails, particularly in “Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow.” She talks in detail about discipline, practice, devotion to work, which she sometimes calls “right-livelihood.” Many practical examples of how to make progress by taking small, low-risk steps. A number of times (not sure if it’s in “Do What You Love” or one of her other books), she comments on her own experience of gradually transitioning from a school teacher and administrator, to a consultant, to a writer.

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  12. “There is no try. There is write or not write.”

    If you would be a writer, then write. What stories burn within you that call out to be told? You’ve imagining being a writer… what did you imagine writing?

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    • It’s an interesting question “what did you imagine writing?” That’s the very thing I’ve been mulling over this week. I always imagined writing a work of fiction, but as I’ve gotten older, I tend to read and write more nonfiction. Mulling continues…

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  13. I can relate to this. I’m only 21 so its hardly like I’m a hardbitten writer, but I’ve been scrawling down stories since I learned to write (the first being the orange door, behind which monsters apparently resided. Not sure why it was orange.) But I always imagined myself being a writer – and admittedly still do to an extent! Ah well.

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    • I always imagined I’d be a writer, but it’s taken me the good part of 30 years to get down to business, so you’re way ahead of the game! Now I’m just trying to narrow things down a bit, thinking about genre and form. The kind of writing that I imagined for myself is not the kind of writing I’m doing and instead of constantly fighting it, it’s probably time to step back and look at what it is I really want to do as a writer. I figure by the time I’m 80, I might have it figured out!

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  14. “I can’t imagine not writing.” That’s beautifully said! This post is so timely. I’m pondering about my writing. I should get back to you with the answer. =>

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  15. Nice piece – I think that imaginary avocation is true of most artists – I imagined myself as a painter in a studio in Soho when I was in college. I saw myself painting murals or building stained glass windows – alas, I design t-shirts. I think of photography as being out on the veldt shooting lions with my zoom out the window of a Land Rover – but the truth is I sit on my porch and shoot sparrows. I think I am an artist – being one is not always as romantic as it’s cracked up to be.

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    • I like the phrase “imaginary avocation”. I was thinking about the romantic aspect of envisioning the artist way – why does mine always include immeasurable suffering? Your imaginings were so beautiful – something to aspire to – mine apparently includes sackcloth and ashes. Perspective is everything!

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      • Maybe I design t-shirts because I never imagined actual suffering for my art 🙂 I had a primary teacher tell me that I was an artist, so I have always seen myself as one, I’ve never felt I had to prove or suffer to be one. I think it’s also topical – what you write or paint – the genre. Of course Van Gogh tosses that out the window – he suffered to paint lovely colors.

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  16. Yaay! WordPress finally fixed whatever was keeping me from getting notices about new posts from the blogs I love. Now I can catch up.
    Firstly, thanks for the great Mountie postcard, Michelle. It’s on my wall above my–ahem– Writing Desk.
    Secondly, that fur-fru around being a Writer is such a waste of energy. I read all the how-to books, joined clueless writers’ groups, suffered the inane critiques, languished over rejection slips. All we have to do is write. Period. Write shitty first drafts–the shittier the better, because they’ll show us what the piece *isn’t* and point us in the right direction. Inch by excruciating inch. And with each inch the piece blossoms and takes on a life we never expected. I live for this magic.

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    • You’re right about the waste of energy – and the distraction created by many of the writers’ venues and how-to books. I think I’m doing plenty of shitty writing, so I’m good there.

      Glad you got the postcard – not as cool as your one-of-a-kind card, but I did my best!

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  17. I pictured my 20s about as tragic, raw, adventurous, and solitary as you describe in your post. Now that I’m actually in my 20s, I’m struggling to accept having a solid and loving relationship, different priorities, and less wanderlust than I expected.

    You always seem to capture emotional intangibles that I identify with so, so well.

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    • I always thought I’d be a world traveler and I was fortunate to travel while in the Army, but the reality is, I’m a homebody who is fond of my creature comforts (like a hot shower and good cup of coffee). That’s the whole point of imagination, I guess – you don’t have to be a character out of a book – you just have to be able to imagine what it would be like. Perhaps less self-torture and more torture of fictional characters will satisfy the need for artistic suffering (she writes, while sipping a hot cup of coffee)!

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  18. Pingback: The Irony of My Writing | A Gracious Life

  19. Writing is my therapy, where I can say whatever I want, however I want, whenever I want. It’s the only thing that feeds me in this way and is comfort after a long day. I write every single day, whether it just be some scribbling down of thoughts in my journal or a long post on my blog. If I don’t write, I know something is missing. Writing is comfort.

    Oh and I agree, making a living through writing rather than the actual writing itself is the bigger challenge. I’m still working towards that goal.

    Nice to stumble upon your blog 🙂

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    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting! You hit the nail on the head with “Writing is comfort.” To get sidetracked by the noise around being a writer is to forget something essential. It seems to be one of those lessons I have to re-learn constantly. I think part of it is that I’ve only just begun to think of myself as a writer and haven’t shifted my priorities. Thinking about trying to make a living as a writer seems overwhelming.

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      • “only just begun thinking of myself as a writer” – I get that SO much. I just added “writer” to my LinkedIn profile and it was a huge step!

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  20. I must add my admiring support to all of your other correspondents’ above. I love what you wrote here, and it’s no accident that it’s because you *do* write well, and because you are who you are, no ridiculous, trumped-up, privileged fantasy figure or freak of nature, simply a smart and interesting and hard working writer. Onward and upward!
    Kathryn

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  21. Writing for me is first and foremost mental organization, since I suck at real organization and don’t want to live in absolute chaos.

    Secondly, it’s communication. If that wasn’t important to me, I’d become proficient at crossword puzzles or something.

    Glad I found your blog. It’s always good to commiserate with fellow writers. 😀

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    • I’ve thought of it as a way of making sense of the world, but I like the idea of “mental organization”.

      There will be a lot more commiserating to do in the months ahead, as I prep for NaNoWriMo. I think I whined through the entire month of November last year!

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  22. Holy crap, a fellow Iowa grad-jee-ate. Yes, the suffering. Beat this: I turned down U of I in favor of ISU because, you know, I wanted the best fine arts and writing program available. Hahahahahaha!

    Actually, it worked out rather well. I compared notes with former Hawkeyes. Turns out the dog poo was just as slimy and rank on either side of the fence. Both colleges had egomaniacal instructors who shamelessly peppered their syllabi with their own works, both writing programs were sickeningly voyeuristic wherein professors passed judgment not only on your style but interpreted you as a person through your storylines as well, both schools were full of budding hacks and geniuses alike, and neither one determined your success among the world of publishers and editors. For that, you need Judo classes and at least three addictions.

    I felt like Hemingway at ISU: that university was the war that fueled so many double-bind psychological dramas and spooky character developments for me that I felt I got my money’s worth. Bonus: I learned how to drink. In the end, many famous writers never set foot in a “writing college,” anyway, so the joke’s on us. Pass the whiskey.

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    • I avoided ISU since it was too close to where I graduated from high school. I went the military route and then the nontraditional student route (old, sober and disinclined to be impressed by professors) at the U of I. Despite teaching there, Vonnegut was pretty dismissive of workshops, so while I felt program-envy, there have been plenty of writers without that background.

      I think the best improvements come from the doing and from reading. Some people really thrive on collaboration and discussion groups, but I tend to feel much less creative and I need time to rework a piece beyond what most course/workshops allow.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your perspective!

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  23. “Jane Writer hasn’t done jack with her life up to this point and still managed to get published. She now lives in a little ranch house in the suburbs with her loving, but argumentative husband, messy child and ill-behaved cats. She has no writing degrees or work experience as a writer and she’s not planning on getting any”

    Ooh! I love that. Can I use that on my first book dust jacket? (minus the part about husband and kids, but spot on with the cats and lack of writing degree.) 😉

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    • Have at it – you’ll probably get there before I do. I’m excruciatingly slow at rewrites and edits! I love your blog name and have added it to the list of ones I must visit. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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  24. Pingback: Blah-gging: In Search of the Joy | The Green Study

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