When I was a teenager, my mom bought a treadmill and started running in her spare time. She ran what seemed like every day, working her way up to progressively longer distances. She ran a half-marathon, then a marathon. A few years ago, she finished an Ironman triathlon— which consists of a 2.6-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26-mile run, back to back, all within stringent time cutoffs. It’s something most people (myself included) wouldn’t dream of attempting, but my amazing mother did it— and then she did another one. Step by step, mile by mile.
I don’t know if everyone took her seriously from the beginning or whether anyone expected her to give up, but it didn’t matter. She often says that running is all in your mindset. All she had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other and go back, day after day, to do it again. It’s that easy and that difficult.
I like to think of my writing that way, not just because I want to think I take after my mother, but because it makes the struggling part easier to contextualize. I’ve been writing my entire life, but that doesn’t make it feel any less daunting. A lot of people seem to think that succeeding as a writer is a long shot— probably because they think of successful authors as rich (most aren’t) or famous (ditto). But the actual reality of the thing is very much the same. You sit at your computer and you work at it, line by line. Most of the time the progress is just another few hundred words on the page, another foot in front of the other. Every day, you get a little stronger, a little closer to where you’re going. Sentence by sentence, page by page.
People only ever see the milestones. So not having a lot of milestones can make you feel like you aren’t going anywhere at all.
I wonder what people think of me sometimes. I try not to. I wonder what my old friends from high school or college think, the ones who I know value their art as much as I value mine. Either they think I’m working really hard towards my goals or they think I’m wasting my life— no in between— and I could see it going either way. And when I meet people and tell them I’m a writer (which I rarely do), I brace myself for hard skepticism. Usually people are really enthusiastic about it, but in the moment, I always secretly suspect they think I’m a loser.
I’m lucky. I have always had extremely supportive friends and family. I’ve gone my entire life with people around me affirming that I have something to say, encouraging me to keep going. Not everyone has that kind of support system. But even so, I feel so illegitimate. Chasing this dream is lonely because most of the chasing is done alone, and I’m too embarrassed to talk about it seriously. I keep thinking I’ll feel like a “real” writer when I have an agent or a book deal. I have to constantly remind myself that this gnawing feeling of doubt is never going to go away. It’s never going to get easier to introduce myself as a writer at parties.
I probably think people are skeptical of me because I’m often skeptical of other writers. I don’t like it, but I am. I’m more likely to take them seriously if I meet them in a class or at a conference (although I don’t know why— having the means to attend classes and conferences certainly doesn’t make you any more legit). But if I meet someone out in the wild who proudly declares themself a writer, I wonder immediately if they really are. If they’re actually doing the work. If they’ll go home and type words into the void that night like I will.
I think a lot of younger or less experienced writers are like me in this way— defensive. It seems like the earlier someone is in their career, the more they want to impress upon you how *incredibly difficult* it is to be a writer. I follow some younger authors on social media, and they’re always full of unsolicited advice— concrete, unyielding advice about revising, querying, publishing. They know How It Is, and they need you to know that they know. They hashtag everything #amwriting. They are Writers with a capital W, and they polish that badge of honor every morning. Because to them, writing is an ultra-exclusive club with extremely limited membership slots, and they constantly have to prove they’re the most deserving.
It makes me feel like I’m not earning my spot. Even though I’m pretty sure that underneath all that bravado, they’re as unsure as I am.
In my experience, most seasoned writers aren’t like that. They won’t sugarcoat how hard it is to make a living this way or pretend you’re going to be the next JK Rowling. But when you take a workshop with them or ask their advice, they’re often so much more encouraging. They’re full of possibility. They aren’t condescending; they don’t have that competitive edge to them. They know that art belongs to everyone, and they want you to have what they have: the joy of making writing a permanent fixture of your life, regardless of whether you get published or how much money it makes you.
I’ve been volunteering as a writing mentor for a teen girl over the last few months, and that’s what I’m trying to be for her. I want her to know that doors can open for her, and that no matter what happens, writing belongs to her as much as it belongs to me or to anyone.
But it’s hard. It’s hard not to rely on others’ validation. It’s hard not to feel like I have to fight for a seat at the table. And it’s hard to know I’m at a point where, if I wanted, I could just as easily give up. That if I never wrote another word, it wouldn’t matter to most people. That it won’t matter to most people if I do.
I work in marketing, with a lot of really diligent, driven people. I work on proposals. People misunderstand this as the same thing as “writing,” which it isn’t, but I’m good at it and it pays the bills. Most of the time I think of marketing as my “day job” and fiction as my actual goal. Convincing myself of that sometimes feels like an act of faith, and other times it feels like a delusion. Every so often at work, I look around and think, this is my job; this is what people are actually counting on me to do. If I decided marketing was my life and never looked back, no one would ever know the difference.
It’s a demanding job. It’s more than enough to take up all your energy on its own. My coworkers have a hard enough time balancing it with their personal lives and families— without trying to write on the side. Sometimes it feels like maybe the writing isn’t real. That marketing is a career and fiction is a fantasy.
But I’m lucky, because I get to go home to people who remind me that it is real. Even so, it’s hard to bear the knowledge that it’s up to me and me alone. It’s hard knowing that most people probably don’t think I’ll really get there and believing that I will anyway. I have to hold onto it in secret, to swear by it as my most sacred truth. Believing in yourself this way is not a guarantee of success, but everyone who’s ever really succeeded at something has done it.
Most of all, I have to believe that I’ve already succeeded, that the act of writing every day is the success in and of itself. Regardless of what people think when they scroll past my Facebook. Regardless of whether I tweeted about it. I got up and wrote today. I moved forward.
Sentence by sentence, page by page.