I wanted to delete this immediately after writing it, but then I remembered what it was like to start pursuing a writing career. It’s lonely and confusing and nobody successful seems to care to explain the difference between journalism and marketing (that’s an actual question we come across, believe me.) If that sounds familiar, this post is for you and for the ones coming behind you.
THE BEST DREAMS START AWKWARDLY
When I was 17, I was a lot of things and none of them that great. But I had an epiphany one day that I promptly announced to everybody around me. It was the first career goal I ever set for myself and I didn’t even know it at the time, but it became vitally important to me as the years went on.
I don’t know why the impulsively blurted words of an awkward teenage kid had that kind of effect. I like discarding memories of my adolescence for reasons, so why that one emerged unblemished from an otherwise tumultuous period in my memory is beyond me.
But emerge it did, glorious, unattainable and utterly unrealistic. What was it?
“I’m going to get published by the time I’m 25,” I announced that day in a tiny high school computer lab that had been purpose built to house twelve computers without any thought to ventilation. I could have (should have) attributed that particular stroke of spontaneity to the sweltering heat, but I didn’t. That one thing stuck itself to the inside of my forehead and gave me tempting looks for years.
Fast forward two and a half years. My novel writing was slow. I couldn’t stick with a story past 10,000 words. I wanted everything and accomplished nothing, but what more could you expect from a nineteen-year-old who never planned beyond a slapdash dream when the mood struck?
Slapdash dreams indeed. I decided then that I was going to write for magazines and newspapers. I didn’t know what that meant, or what it would require, and I had no idea that magazines and newspapers are actually quite different. All I knew was that this was going to happen because it was writing.
It took about two months before that fantasy ended. I had accomplished nothing, my rent was past due and I wasn’t eating enough. So I got a job like a real human being. I kicked dust on my freelance writing dream and sped on with my life a little morosely, but there was a future to be had.
NOTHING HAPPENS OVERNIGHT
Fast forward again. In 2010, found a novel I absolutely had to finish, and by the spring of 2012, I was up to my ears in it. I was 23. Less than two years left to “get published.”
What did that even mean? Why was it so important?
To put it tactfully, I’ve never been that great at punching clocks. I hate monotony. It drains the life out of me. The words of a lazy person, I know. And I worried about exactly that for years. But there, finally, I was about to find an answer.
The family business closed down that spring. For years, the recession hammered a business that was just coming into its own. I watched my dad work around the clock to keep it afloat, but even that wasn’t enough and it crashed and burned just before things got on the upswing. It’s an awful story of bad timing and worse luck.
But that forced me to make some decisions, so I manned up and took a summer construction job, building concrete foundations for grain bins. Because “yarrrr, money,” but also because I wanted to prove that I could work.
I made it through the summer. Or, at least, I emerged on the far end of it. I felt somehow successful despite everything I’d lost to the harshness of those 4-5 months. It’s mostly banished to foggy memory by now, but I came out with two things: money for an engagement ring and a deep, insatiable desire to write and make a living with it.
And that’s where I found the answer to my years-old question. Why was it so important to honour my goal of publication? I had tried to enjoy “regular work” for years. I’d tried jobs I was good at and jobs that threatened to cut me to pieces and bury me in the concrete (quite an elaborate threat, honestly. They deserve some credit.) But in the end, I hated every last one of them and it wasn’t laziness.
I needed to write and be published because it would prove to myself and everybody else that I was talented enough that I could do what I loved and make money doing it. I knew how damnedly slim my chances were, but I needed to do it. More for myself than anyone around me. I’d grown into a certain degree of apathy by that point. If I was going to accomplish my dreams, it was going to start and end with me. I didn’t need anyone to give me the go-ahead.
So I started studying what it meant to write, who to approach and how to write something they liked. That took three months.
HARD WORK PAYS OFF
Near the beginning of December, a trade magazine I had pitched responded with a request for samples. My heart sank then. I had no samples. I wasn’t an accomplished writer. I had nothing to show.
But reality be damned, I buckled down and searched for the most interesting industry news I could find. Then, I wrote three articles in 24 hours and sent them off, fingers crossed, teeth clenched and a profusely sweating brow. (A seasoned freelance writer would tell you that is exactly the wrong way to approach a potential client. Editors can smell the desperation.)
What I got back a week later was a response somewhere along the lines of, “Sure. Here’s an article for you.” I only read the first line before I lost it. I jumped up and down and ran around the house, trying not to yell at the top of my lungs. Somebody liked my writing enough to offer to pay me for something.
I sent the article off two weeks before my 24th birthday and it was published in February of 2013, 11 months ahead of my schedule. Around the same time, I got a tidy cheque in the mail for about $650.
It took almost seven years to validate that one, tiny thing, but it has changed the way I see the world. Encourage your dreams, polish them, cherish them. Frame them above your mantelpiece, put candles around them and hold vigils for them. Pour as much energy into them as you can afford.
Because, somehow, eventually, one day, you might actually see them become reality. And even if that reality is never as good as you wished it would be (Good Lord, the bills! The bills!), it’s still a way of thumbing your nose at everything that goes wrong and that’s worth something in and of itself.
Questions? Post them in the comments and I’ll try to sound all aloof and intelligent at you! But seriously, ask away. I might have an answer or two.