Finding my way back to writing

old writing

In January, I had the privilege of meeting an author of a historical fiction series about the Civil War. I read her first four books when I was about 12 years old, when she used a pen name and the series had a different name. A year or so ago, I discovered she had started the series again, under her original name, but with a new title. I saw that she engaged with her readers directly on Facebook, which is quite uncommon. She responds to people via email or social media more frequently and promptly than some of my friends or family. Anyway, as luck would have it, she was traveling to San Diego for a few days, and on a whim, I asked if she would be “around,” thinking we could meet. She suggested breakfast, and a few days later we spent two hours talking about reading, writing, growing up in the South, faith, and family. I left the breakfast knowing I had a new friend and mentor. She completely believed I had stories to tell, and that I needed to write them down. I was inspired, and I was going to write.

But I didn’t. Twice, she has asked me via email, “Are you writing, Jenna??” And I, embarrassingly, have not responded, because the truth is, I haven’t. Until now.

Since at least the third grade, if not before, I said I wanted to be an author when I grew up. In the early years, I wrote in spiral-bound notebooks, trying to come up with my own version of The Baby-Sitters Club, writing about best friends with luscious brown or blonde hair, one curly and one straight, of course. I wrote silly poems about boys that would never like me back – “he’s just not that into you” isn’t a new concept. I thought I could be like my first female author crush, Laura Ingalls Wilder, writing about my own family and our adventures (pioneering or not). I aspired to be at the level of Jane Austen, my second female author crush (LIW and Austen still top my list; you never forget your first loves), who wrote about the everyday stories of family, friends, love, and marriage with such eloquence and humor.

Some of you have read this story before. I went to college for journalism, writing feature and news stories, and adjusting my dream to become a star reporter for The Washington Post, only to shift gears and jump into digital communications and advocacy for nonprofits in DC, right at the time that blogging and social media really began to take off in a big way.

And nearly two years ago, I left DC after several successful and happy years, thinking I would try to “be a writer” again. But today, I find myself questioning what it really means to be something. Am I still a writer even though I haven’t blogged in more than two months until now? Am I still a writer even though I haven’t written anything that isn’t for a client in two months? Am I still a writer even though I don’t actively send out pitches to publications?

I’ve read enough books and blog posts, some by famous writers, and others who just would like to think they are famous, that sternly remind those of us “wannabes” that we need to write every day if we want to become better at our craft. That we need to “shut up and write” instead of talking about it. I’ve read Pressfield’s The War of Art, and know the demon of Resistance very well, and know I have to beat him at his own game.

In some sense, they’re right. Just like any other skill or hobby, you become better at it, or perhaps even master it, by practicing frequently, maybe every day. And there are days when you may like it, or days when you hate it, and you are counting down the minutes until you are done. I see this a lot when I read about running. As a kid, I hated running. I never thought I would become a runner. And even after my first couple of races, post-college, I still didn’t consider myself a runner. I didn’t have all the gear yet. I wasn’t fast. I didn’t run every day. I didn’t know all the runner jargon. But somewhere along the way, as I practiced and learned and even began to enjoy running, I finally called myself a runner. I get Runner’s World, I have the gear and clothes, and I use the jargon. I am faster, I am stronger, and I run more frequently. I’ll never become an elite, and I’ll probably never win a race. I don’t want to run every day. But I’m a runner because I run.

So why do I struggle so much with this concept when it comes to writing? Perhaps part of it is because there is a stigma around writing, all these expectations. You tell people you are a runner, and they don’t usually ask you if you’ve won any races. They may ask how many miles you typically run. But tell people that you’re a writer, and they want to know where you’ve been published, or if you’re writing the “next great American novel.” Not all runners are expected to be fast. But writers are expected to be good. And if I’m really honest with myself, I expect to be good.

A few weeks ago, I was one of two final candidates for an editor position at an alumni magazine. I wanted it so badly – it was the first job I’d seen in essentially all the time since I left DC that I thought I’d be perfect for, and that was in the direction I want to go. It came down to some very specific feedback about my writing – the headlines being part of it. I was pretty upset, as you might imagine. To be that close to something, and then have to start over, because my headlines weren’t up to snuff? Ouch.

Although I ultimately look at it as a lesson learned and a great experience, I also recognize that it was a blow to my ego, and perhaps has been a factor in extending my writing drought. I have quickly pushed aside ideas for stories and blog posts because I don’t think they’re interesting enough. I avoid sitting down in the morning or night to write because I don’t think what will come out will be good enough, even for me, much less for anyone else to read. So I knit. Or watch Netflix. Or do more crosswords. Anything but write. Because the nagging question deep inside me is quite possibly, “Am I a writer? Will I ever really be a writer?”

As I’m sitting here in a coffee shop with my laptop, I’m realizing that part of my challenge may be that I’ve taken to looking at writing as a chore, rather than something that I once so enjoyed. If I think about my evolution as a runner, it meant changing up my route, trying different running clothes and apps and shoes, and working on specific goals, like improving my time or besting a killer hill. I learned to stop looking at it as a thing I had to do, and instead something I wanted to do – it was fun, it was motivating, and I quickly learned all the little things that played a role in my growing passion for it.

So I think the same thing applies to my writing. It’s been a long time since I tried writing a poem, or wrote real fiction, or something that wasn’t within the themes of this blog. And clearly, I needed to get out of the house for the words to start pouring of me, so now I know that for me, I get inspiration and motivation from changing my location. When I began to see changes in my running, and ultimately, changes in my body and in my frame of mine, running became more enjoyable, and more…flowing. It’s time to get back into that spirit with writing again. It’s time to be a writer, not to be a best-selling author or to win any awards or to make other people proud. It’s time to be a writer because I like to write. And that’s who I want to be.

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