On My “Becoming” a Writer

One thing I find myself asked on at least a semi-regular basis is how I came to be a writer. Now, it should be borne in mind that, for the most part, this question is asked most often by people with a genuine interest in taking up writing themselves, and I in no way intend to knock them for that.

However, it’s also asked by other people who mean it in a different way. In those cases, this seemingly innocent inquiry amounts to code for “Who said you could be a writer? Who made you into one, and what were their credentials?”

Which, in and of itself, doesn’t seem so bad at first. But dig at the meaning a bit deeper, and the warts start to show. If only somebody other than yourself has the power to “make” you a writer, that strips every ounce of power and self-determination you have and gives it to someone else.

It means that every moment you spend writing up to that magic moment, you’re nothing better than a wannabe. A hack. A fake.  But the truth is nobody can “make” you a writer. No title, no contract, no expensive degree has the power to make you something you already are.

Yet lots of people chase that blessing from on high as though they aren’t allowed to put their hands to the keys without it. And this kind of thinking can have a profound effect on the mind. I know this because, for a great meany years, I let it rule me.

When I was younger, I blasted away at the keys—typewriter and computer—with abandon. I thought of nothing but creating the most interesting, entertaining stories I could. Granted, those yarns were often flawed, but they were mine, and I was firm in my faith that they had value because they were fun.

Then, somewhere along the way, I lost that. I’m still not sure when, but sometime between 18 and 25 I got it in my head that I wouldn’t be a “real” writer till I made a major sale. So I diligently sent out my stuff. And I waited. Rejections came, boilerplate-grim and unfeeling, and I despaired, as young people do. Then came the bright idea that if I was having trouble, it was because I didn’t know how to write, and a creative writing degree would help fix that.

Then I got to campus.

If you said I probably should have done my research before, you’d be right. But again: the young are seldom afflicted with a excess of horse sense. I presumed that, in the eyes of a professional writer, all writing was more or less created equal. Of course, I was wrong.

I write genre. It’s a fundamental element of who I am. So when I was told to my face that my new institution didn’t “do genre” because it was—whole cloth—inferior writing, I was furious. In a broad sweep, the thing that moved the blood in my veins was condemned by an Ivory Tower dilettante whose approval I thought I craved.

But I bit down on my anger and carried on because I wanted so desperately to be real, even if that meant abandoning my projects for stories full of urban ascetics pondering the grimness of postmodern life through the lens of coffee, irony, and other pseudo-intellectual hoop tricks.

Classmates submitted stories that had all the forward momentum of a glacier and the wit of an ambling goldfish—and received high praise and higher grades. I shook my head. Somehow—this!—was better than what I had to say simply because it wanted for sword fights and starships.

Now, I won’t claim that everything that came from my mind was good during that period. An astounding quantity of it was pure shit. But I will advance that it was no more or less shit than the stuff to which I was subjected in class—excepting that one pesky detail: it was genre.

In the end, I did not finish the writing degree. I switched to literature and eventually, after a handful of other false starts, got an MA in Rhetoric.

To this day I despise any story that smacks of navel-gazing, of intellectualism, of mordant self-absorption. It provokes a visceral reaction, direct from my animal mind, and it will always be a reminder of the sanctimonious stench of tea and tweed jackets and sure silver whiskers.

But here, as they say, is the strange part.

In the midst of all this hell, when I was neck-deep in grad school for reasons unknown even to me, I received an email from a complete stranger named Jeff. He had read the first chapters of my abortive Sword and Planet novel Bannerman of Mercury, which I had posted up on a blog and, in the haze of graduate work, forgotten.

For reasons still unknown to me, he liked it, and he invited me to participate in an anthology.

Immediately, I was torn: on the one hand, here was proof that my stuff had value. On the other, that devilish voice in the back of my head sipped its tea and whispered lies: It’s all fake. It won’t make you real. Only I can make you real.

But I was tired of that niggling little voice, and for once my stubbornness was well-placed. I wrote the story anyway, jamming it in between papers and exams and work. I barely remember writing it, but when the book came out, it got some very pleasant treatment along with the rest of the stories.

I was astounded. I was chagrined. I did a lot of thinking fueled by cheap bourbon.

I’d gone back to school to be a better writer, yet I’d written no more than 15,000 words of fiction in the years since—half of which was the story for Jeff—all because I’d bought the notion that an oligarch in a tower determined the worth of my writing. I’d let that seep into my bones and rot the marrow inside. I’d come away from all that expense and all that anguish believing I couldn’t write.

And yet—and yet—

Somewhere out there was a small group of readers who enjoyed my words. They enjoyed them not because they were carefully vetted by a major publisher or lauded by critics or even good. They liked them because they were fun. In all the hell, I’d forgotten: that was the point.

It always had been.

And so here we are.