So You Want to be a Writer


“If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.”  James Baldwin 


I was recently asked what advice I would give to someone who wanted to be a writer. My first response was this: have people in your life who love you even if you’re unsuccessful. But for those of us who’ve already chosen this vocation, Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride offers excellent advice: “Get used to disappointment.”

The truth is, I would prefer to give NO advice to those wanting to write. Why? Because as James Baldwin said, if you’re going to write, you will. You’ll fight through the obstacles of finding undisturbed time, deal with skeptical friends and family members and stubbornly keep at it despite rejection, self-doubt and failure.

These days, I seldom encourage anyone to be a writer, no matter how talented, at least those who want to write professionally and publish. As a writer friend noted recently, a query to an agent has a 1 in 2000 chance of obtaining that agent’s representation. And this is before a manuscript even reaches a publisher!

It took me years to get my first novel published (I basically quit writing a number of those years!). And while we are in the process of creating “the great American novel,” we receive no income from this. The hard truth is that few published writers, even writers who have done well, earn an actual living wage from their published works. That’s why many authors take positions as writers in residence at colleges and universities or teach workshops, do professional editing and critiquing or have some other day job.

This isn’t a vocation for the faint-hearted or those who don’t deal well with delayed gratification.

As writer James Baldwin recognized in the above quote, the choice to write belongs to the writer alone. But along the way, beginners need more established writers to recognize potential when they see it, or as Baldwin says, to affirm that their “effort is real.” Those of us who have taken this difficult and often frustrating road can at least offer that.