So, I want to be a writer. An author, in fact. That is what I want to do for a living. Half the people I tell this to scoff at this declaration. When I tell people that I’m studying Creative Writing, they smile politely and ask me what I really want to do with my life. And I smile back and tell them I’m not joking. This is want I want to do for a living. It is all I have ever wanted to do with my life, once I realized that being a knight or a wizard wasn’t really going to pan out. Ever since I’ve been a kid, writing books worthy to be on the national bestseller list has been my dream.
And as I’ve gotten older, reality continually sucker-punches me in the face until I’m black and blue, battered and bruised.
The first punch came in the form of an email. I am doing a disfavor, calling it a punch. It was more of a slap really; slap from reality that opened my eyes to the fact that this profession that I’ve chosen isn’t easy. One of my favorite authors (who is wronged by being lesser known; check out my favorite series by her, the Cal Leandros novels) Rob Thurman had posted on her website that she was available via email. In 7th grade, I emailed her and asked her what advice she would give an aspiring author. I wasn’t really expecting a reply, just doing it for the thrill of knowing that I was writing an established author, something that I held – and still do – with the highest esteem. But, to my surprise and excitement, she responded. I saved that email and still have it today. And this is what she said:
“If you haven’t gone to college yet, be sure you pick a major that will give you a career that will actually support you, and *then* you write. Writers make less than 50 cents per paperback book. Unless you sell millions (which is rare), you can’t live from writing alone. If you already have a job that supports you, then approach writing as your second job. And like a job you have to do it every day. If you can’t produce at least one book (300 some pages) a year, once again, not practical as a career choice.”
Needless to say, I was both thrilled and puzzled with her response: thrilled she actually talked to me but surprised at the realization and possibility that just because you published a novel didn’t mean you could survive off of that. Actually, more often than not, you need another job on top of being an author. For the first time, my dream appeared even more far-fetched than it already seemed. It seemed hard enough to sit down and come up with an idea that was original and appealing, let alone write the bloody thing well enough for anyone to actually want to read it. Now I had to get another job on top of that just to survive? Being naïve as I was, that was a blow for me. But it wasn’t enough for me to deter away from my dream.
So, I pushed forward. I went into high school and managed to survive those four years. Got accepted into my favorite University and applied into the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Declared as an English major my freshman year and got accepted. To stay on track for graduation, my sophomore year required me to take two different courses in Creative Writing and get a B in both to be admitted into the Creative Writing track. Last semester, I took Screenwriting. A-. Solid, yeah? This semester, I am taking Fiction Writing. We are assigned to write three pieces surrounding a certain idea and our class will critique it. Okay, I can manage that. But it was my first critique where reality punched me harder than I ever thought possible, to where it physically hurt. And while it hurt and made me question a lot about myself, it may be exactly what I needed. So let me explain:
My first assignment was to write a story about a kid (under 18) who was either in a group and tried to get out of it or was given a rule to follow and ultimately broke it. We were to focus on the opportunity for change. There was no word limit (those who know me personally know that is bad, for when it comes to writing, I am not shy). As it was coming up for my turn to be critiqued and I still hadn’t written anything yet, I felt myself becoming more and more nervous; so nervous, that I couldn’t even write anything. So I sat down and told myself that instead of freaking out, I should try and take this opportunity to write in a way that I never have before; try something new or try something that I may not get another chance to try; challenge myself.
So that is what I did.
A few days, countless hours of brainstorming and bouncing ideas off of friends, and one night of furiously writing until three a.m. later, I finally had a finished product in my hand. “Like brother, like brother”, I had titled it. 12 pages in length, it was a story about a young boy who, during his teenage years, got involved with a gang known as the Brotherhood. He joined to avenge the death of his older brother, due to gang violence years before. His task was to rob a gas station and leave no witnesses. If he did that, he got it the gang. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, the gas station the gang leader chose for him was owned by the father of his only friend outside of the gang.
And his friend was working the day he went to rob it.
I won’t spoil the ending of the story for you. Maybe you’ll read it one day. But, after writing it, I was really excited about the story. I thought the descriptions were pretty sweet and I really liked my characters. By the end of the story, I was rooting for the protagonist and had a huge attachment to Trevor, the friend at the store. I had even written the story in second person (using “you” the whole time), which was something we read about in class and something I had never done before. I also tried to be authentic and realistic, having one of my friends who is more knowledgeable with the sketchier aspects of my story help me with character descriptions and dialogue. I wanted to be as authentic as I could. The morning I was to be critiqued, I went in with a kick in my step, having just secured a job for the summer and feeling really confident with my story (my friend said she loved it, so I took that as a good sign).
Unfortunately, she was the only positive criticism I received on that story.
To try and shorten this post, basically we spent 40 minutes of class ripping my story into pieces. The main negative comments were that the protagonist was unsympathetic (which my professor’s huge thing is sympathetic characters), the characters cliché, the storyline too familiar and the ending too dramatic. I wasn’t allowed to talk, so I just sat and took the criticism. The professor would say something and my classmates would echo his thoughts. It was one of the most heart-wrenching experiences of my life.
Heart-wrenching may seem a bit overdramatic, but that is how I would earnestly describe it. Writing is such a huge part of who I am and it is what I want to do for a living. Unfortunately, my personality makes me take any criticism of my writing very personally, so as each comment was made, it felt like a physical blow and by the end of class, I just wanted to vomit.
Luckily I managed to hold it together as I headed straight to my next class. I was texting one of my best friends that I made this year at University and she is the one who I owe a lot to. She managed to help me not completely break down as I beat myself and began questioning if I should even become writer. Which is something I definitely began to question. I began wondering, if something I really thought was good is so bad, how can any novel I write be any good?
My friend ripped down that mentality right quick and helped me realize something that I needed to realize: being a writer isn’t easy. Not everyone is going to love your work. Some people are going to hate it. Some people are going to think it is (pardon my French) proper shit. No matter what I write or how I write it, inevitability someone is going to not like it. And I have to accept that fact. But that doesn’t make me a horrible writer, because on the flip side, there will be people who love my stories; who think that what I wrote was incredible, fall in love with the characters as much as I did when I created them. Some may, hopefully, even be inspired by them. When reading feedback comments from my class later than night, one of the girls in my class wrote that I should publish that story, she thought it was so good. Yet in class, she agreed with my professor that it was barely worth reading past the first page. So that alone shows that just because a person says or acts one way, doesn’t mean that is how they truly feel. Don’t judge that book by its cover.
So, for a day or two, I was really down and truly doubting if writing was going to pan out for me. I questioned my worth as a writer and questioned the power of my words. But it took my group of friends and their encouragement to help me realize that this is a battle that I am always going to fight. There will always be people who like my work. There will always be people to hate it. So what I need to do is just write for me. Write the story that my heart creates and write it to the best of my ability. Any readers that I have can’t want any more than that and I can’t expect myself to do anything less than that.
So that is what I am going to do.
I made an appointment with my professor to talk one-on-one to learn more about what he wishes I would’ve changed, so hopefully my next story will be more to his liking. I am going to tailor my style to my audience, but it will still be my style. That I can guarantee you. I am going to use this experience to learn and grow as a writer. Because that is what and who I am; good or bad, that’s me: a writer.
So don’t let criticism destroy your dreams. Instead, learn from it and keep pushing forward. You have that dream for a reason and you deserve to make it come true.