It’s all about the past tense part

You know how it is. You are some place, maybe waiting in a long line, or at the car repair shop. You strike up a conversation with someone. You talk about the wait time, or the weather, or the food, or some safe topic. Inevitably, the conversation will get around to the business of what it is that each of us does for a living. This happens faster when talking to men, less fast with women. Please note there is no intention of sexism in that last sentence—it’s just an observation.

I usually respond I am a fiction editor at a small press, which often stirs the interest of the other party. Note that this is not my goal usually—it is just what I experience. If I wanted to really stir up interest, I would say I am an ethical hacker, or a Hollywood stunt double, or an expensive madam or something (I am not these things, but it could be fun—especially since most likely I’d never see that person again so there is no risk—it’s just that I am not one for bullshit).

I usually hear a response that equates to something like I always wanted to be a writer, or I’ve never written anything before but am writing a book, or I have a great book idea and am looking for a ghost writer, or something similar. Not always mind you, but a fair percentage of the time.

I usually ask at some point, “What have you written?”

Note that I don’t ask what it is you write or what have you published, which can be quite the topic of bullshit. I ask about what you’ve written (past tense). I am not trying to be funny or mean. I am just trying to cut to the chase.

Here’s the thing. Being a writer is not about some pie in the sky dream of fame and fortune, or the dream of making something of yourself based on your self-perceived story genius. Being a writer is about putting your ass-in-a-chair-and-actually-writing-something. And to be a writer you have to have written something. Anything. Past tense. Writers write. Aspiring writers don’t.

Note that this doesn’t mean that writer’s love the process of writing. I don’t know any writer who loves the process of writing a novel. I do know a lot of writers who love having written. Past tense. They like it once they are done.

There was one person I had this style of conversation with recently, and I was intrigued. I asked her what she’d written. Her response was something akin to she had written in her journal every day since she was eleven, but she didn’t think that counted. She just aspired to be a writer.

I stopped her. She IS a writer. She HAS written. For years and years and years she has written. And yes, that counts in my book. It’s all practice for the next step in her evolution as a writer—if that is what she wants to do. It doesn’t matter that no one has ever read her journal, or that she’s never published a short story, or never outlined a book idea. It matters that she has written. If she has written, then she is a writer. If she makes the time and effort to learn story craft, she can be a novelist. Or a short story author. Or a poet. Or whatever she wants. The next steps are just next steps.

We spent the next forty-five some odd minutes talking about how to learn what she wanted to learn so she can write what she wants to write and how to move forward as a writer. I have full faith that if she learns story craft then she will write a novel. Because she IS a writer. She has written. Maybe she will sell. Maybe she won’t. None of that has any bearing on being a writer.

There are many, many, many people who aspire to write books, but they never do. They are not interested in learning about plot, or structure, or how to create characters that seem like real people. Somehow, they magically feel they can write the Great American Novel without ever having practiced or having written a word before. Life doesn’t work that way. Even Leonardo DaVinci sucked when he first learned to draw.

If you are already a writer, don’t you want to be a better writer? Yes? Then take the time to learn your craft. If you aspire to be a writer, maybe make a plan, and find out what you need to know to reach your dreams of being a writer. Meanwhile. Just write. Anything.

It’s all about the having written part. Past tense. So you are a writer you say? What have  you written?

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