Facing Down Expectations as a Writer
By Elisabeth Newton, Student Contributor
The following exchange has been endured by myself and others far more often than any of us cares to mention. Does it sound familiar?
New Acquaintance: “What are you studying?”
“Oh! What are you gonna do with that? Teach?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh!….” (Insert uncertain look here as my new acquaintance debates whether or not to encourage said pursuit. They wish I’d said “I want to be a dental hygienist” or “I’m an engineer” so they could appropriately commend my grown-up- sounding life goals).
Then there’s this joke. Have you heard it?
How do you get an English major off your front porch? You pay for the pizza.
Yes, I majored in English, despite the common perception – both spoken and unspoken – that it was a bad idea. By pursuing it, I fulfilled most people’s expectations: writers major in English.
People have a myriad of ideas about writers. English majors don’t make money, it’s said, and so writing should just be a hobby. More than one writing mentor I consulted said, “Don’t do it.” Articles and books I read wavered on the topic, but most condemned the pursuit of the English degree. I did eventually change my major, but not until I completed the Associates in English.
Writers themselves have plenty of ideas about writers, too. I am no exception. I had expectations I decided other writers should likewise follow. I have been writing stories since I knew what a story was, and since the age of twelve I’ve written approximately one novel a year. Being a relatively “weathered writer” amongst most writers in my support groups, I felt like those who didn’t write as much or who hadn’t been writing as long couldn’t be “real” writers. (Spoiler: I was wrong.) And then, because I didn’t follow all the rules my writer friends seemed to follow (“All real writers stay up ungodly hours writing. All real writers talk to their characters. All real writers carry notebooks with them. All real writers think about NOTHING but writing.”), I felt I wasn’t doing everything I was supposed to do to be a “real writer” either. I met published teenagers and felt as though I was falling short of my own identity. I struggled with what others expected me to do with my talent, as have many other adolescent writers. I was always either doing too little or doing too much by identifying as a “writer.”
So, where do we, as writers, draw the line? Who are we and what should we be doing with ourselves? Should we dive all in, or should we keep the writing-thing at a “hobby-level”?
First, as a writer, you probably fall into one of the following three categories:
- The Covert “Hobby” Writer. When someone asks what you do, writing is the last thing you mention—even if it’s the thing that keeps you up at night. You’re just a bit shy to tell people you write. You’re probably majoring as a dental hygienist.
- The Extreme Writer. It’s your identity, it’s your passion, you’re gonna be a writer/literary agent/editor (if you grow up), and you’re gonna make it big. Right now, you’re probably living on Ramen, wondering how to pay for your next conference, chatting online with writing support groups, living the Writer Life and proud of it.
- The Guy in the Middle. You identify unashamedly as a writer, but you’re also pursuing other things.
Now that you can see there are different kinds of writers (and perhaps there are more), let me establish something else:
It doesn’t matter which one you are.
Here’s another (frustrating) truth: I can’t tell you what you’re supposed to be doing with your art.
What I can say for sure: if you like writing, honor the gift that you’ve been given to the best of your ability… by writing.
Do you like writing? Then write. Do you like other things? Do those, too.
I don’t regret my choices. I learned from majoring in English, it was a field I was comfortable pursuing, and it was–at the time–the way I honored my gifting. And yes, now I’m pursuing other things, and writing on the side. And yes, it’s ok for me to do that, too.
You shouldn’t regret your choices, either, because one thing that all writers have in common is that we write from our experiences. And part of our experiences is changing our minds, exploring our options, daydreaming, building and re-building, and finding our place in life. Everything happens for a reason. Don’t let expectations hold you fast to one thing if you’re supposed to move on, and don’t let them make you give up something that means the world to you.
What makes you a real writer? Let’s keep it simpler than the world has made it out to be. You write what you love, and you love what you write. No matter how difficult it may be, don’t let others’ expectations make you pursue it more or less than you should.
Do you feel that the expectations of others have influenced your writing journey?
Elisabeth Newton is a college student from Colorado. When she’s not working or studying, she’s writing her next novel, hiking backcountry trails, reading, travelling, serving her God, and then writing about it all. She blogs (occasionally) at https://secretlifeofliddy.blogspot.com/
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