by Beth Burrell
I am a writer.
As those words form in my brain, I try sitting up straighter, willing myself to believe. I silence the voices in my head saying, impostor, wannabe, fake. I tell myself – look at what you’ve done, not at what you haven’t. I practically leapt for joy recently reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s many examples of how we let fear drive our creative lives in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear –
You’re afraid somebody else already did it better.
You’re afraid everybody else already did it better.
You’re afraid of being a one-hit wonder.
You’re afraid of being a no-hit wonder.
You’re afraid your best work is behind you.
You’re afraid you never had any best work to begin with.
She’s right. What I’m best at? Convincing myself I can’t write. Yet somewhere deep inside me, I know that writing is the best I have to offer of myself. It’s what I do, what I’ve always done, whether it’s for pay or simply because I love putting words together and re-arranging bad ones. I want to sing from the rooftops: I am a writer.
But I don’t.
Meanwhile, the evidence mounts that I do it a lot. Thousands upon thousands of words take up valuable closet and drawer space in journals, and digital space on my laptop. My head stays crowded with words that never make it to the page, words not seen by anyone (good thing). Then there are the published words I shudder to read again for fear of finding errors, or needless, flowery, over earnest words. Over my desk at home, I glance at my tacked up handwritten note to self: DON’T OVERWRITE. Ever. I watch it occasionally flutter to the floor, my resolve along with it.
When I was a college senior studying journalism, I took a class in editorial writing from the late Jim Shumaker, venerable professor and editor. He was crotchety and hilarious (some may remember the popular comic strip Shoe whose main character was based on him). As class ended one day, I dropped off an assignment on his desk. I heard him say, “You write well.” I looked around. Was he talking to me? Couldn’t be. Could it?
He was. I wonder sometimes whether these are the moments – and people – who set us on course and give us confidence when we lack it most. Who offer a boost that day, but a jump-start for life.
In any case, I’ve been writing, and reading about writing, for a very long time. When fellow writers speak of misgivings and worries of being found phony – not openly acknowledging, let alone shouting, that they are writers – I think, yes. I understand. I do. When I began writing personal essays for First Day about three years ago, I experienced a kind of terror. Did I want to expose myself (and my family) online? Could I even do it? I knew how to interview people and tell their story, cover an event and explain what happened. But my own experience?
I decided to try, hoping that at the very least, I’d write regularly. Over time, it has gotten easier. Readers sometimes ask about the writing process. Other than procrastinating – not something I necessarily recommend – I do rely on a few rules of thumb:
- Don’t submit work without a second set of eyes looking it over.
- Remove all jargon unless a specific audience demands it.
- Make every word count; write simply and clearly. Err on the side of short-winded.
- Set aside your notes and write as much as possible from memory. Add facts, quotes and other details from notes later.
- Revise, revise again.
- If time permits, set the piece aside and come back to it. In his book, The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Steven Pinker says – “…show a draft to yourself, ideally after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar. If you are like me, you will find yourself thinking, “What did I mean by that?” or “How does this follow?” or all too often, “Who wrote this crap?”
Whatever you may call your work, know what to call yourself. Defending yourself as a creative person begins by defining yourself, writes Elizabeth Gilbert.
Who am I?
I am a writer.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr.
This post originally appeared on The First Day.