How to Climb the Face of Your Writing Future
Tineke Bryson, Staff Writer
When you’re a kid, the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question is fun. “A doctor!” or “A dinosaur!” are equally serious answers. It seems just as possible to become a princess as it does to become a teacher or an archaeologist. The really hard thing to believe is that you’ll grow up. That’s the fairytale.
The evidence is all around you. Photographs of your parents and grandparents as children deal perhaps the most solid blow to disbelief. But who seriously believes they will think like a grown-up one day? Act like a grown-up? Look like a grown-up? If the legends are true, then anything is possible. Including becoming a famous novelist.
As a kid, I thought I was just as likely to become a writer as I was to become anything else. But as I grew older, I stopped thinking this way.
The way kid/pre-teen writers think about their future changes completely with the transition to teen, and later, adult writer.
At One Year Adventure Novel, we get lots of emails and calls from parents of pre-teen writers. “My son has already written a book and started another, and I think he’s really good!” they might say. Or “I know you say the curriculum is for 8th grade and higher, but my 11-year-old is already a strong writer. This would be perfect for her!” These conversations sometimes make me sad. I can’t recommend OYAN for an 11- year-old, but I also know that by the time a student is 13 or 14, she may have lost some of the creative confidence she has right now as a pre-teen.
Before I turned 13, I wrote feverishly, transfixed by the glory of each new story idea. I did not think I was quite as good as an adult playwright or poet, but I thought I was good, for a kid! As I grew older, I did continue to write, but I became much less certain of the kind of future that awaited me. The projects I took on were less ambitious and I often abandoned them.
If (like me) you are shaken by the loss of your earlier confidence and joy in writing, please don’t make the mistake of concluding you just don’t have it in you after all. You’re in the fairytale now, and it’s even more perilous than you imagined it might be, as a kid, looking in from outside.
To make an analogy: you’ve left the kiddie climbing wall and entered the vaulted expanse of the adult climbing area. Suddenly the voices in your life switch from “You can be anything you want to be!” to “Do you really think you can get published? What will you do if you can’t?”
As adults, we err on the side of over-affirming kids. We transfer on to them our own hopes and dreams. If not me, then maybe them. But as kids reach their teens, it’s easy for us to transfer our fears and disappointments instead. We start sowing caution, trying, in a misguided way, to save you from disillusionment and letdown.
“Have you seen the adult climbing wall space?” we say. “I just want to make sure you know how hard it’s going to be.”
Of course you’re daunted. There are no longer fifty climbing grips; there are what appear to be thousands. And this isn’t even the mountain. It’s just the training ground for the mountain.
Where do you even start?
I am an adult. And I have this to say: The face of a mountain, no matter how daunting, is just made of rock—stretches of rock not unlike a climbing wall. And every climbing wall just comes down to a grip. Here’s how you climb the face of your future:
Start Where You Are
No need to figure out the ideal spot to start climbing. In high school? Homeschooling? In college? Working? It doesn’t matter. Quite honestly, almost any “spot” will do. Because it’s about starting. It’s about putting your fingers to a grip just within stretching reach, testing your weight on a foot grip, and moving.
Just look at the grips within reach. Don’t waste emotional energy bemoaning how far you are from the best-case scenario. When it comes to writing, there is no best-case scenario. Mark Twain did not finish high school. Ray Bradbury did not go to college, Harper Lee studied law, Rowling studied French and Classics. There is no one best path. Just people who started where they were and stretched.
A Little Recon Is Half the Battle
Calmly taking a look at the grip options around you will do more for you than hours of soul-searching and courage-summoning. Don’t brood over your fears. Just do a little research with no obligation.
Look at writing degrees, but pretend it is for somebody else.
Find writing workshops that sound fun and pretend you have a rich benefactress who is looking for ways to spoil you.
Stalk the blogs of fiction editors and agents and pretend you have no reason in the world to contact them.
Who knows? You might need to dress up and do this recon incognito. It’s for the war effort. Nothing’s too silly for the war effort.
The thing about recon is that once you’ve done it, it becomes far easier to take action. The terrain itself is no longer one vast, dark question mark. It’s somewhat familiar. Your brain gets the chance to move on from “What if?” to “How?” At a certain point, the wig and glasses slide off and you startle yourself by saying, “I think I’ll try this.”
Invest in Accountability
There is no cost-free way to succeed as a writer. If you find a “free” way to publish yourself, or get a full ride to study at a great school, or write your best-selling books early in the morning before your job, your costs may not have been in dollars, but they were costs. Costs in credibility, or sleep, or energy, or other opportunities sacrificed for the sake of writing.
Every way up the mountain will cost you, but some investments are more worthwhile. “Spend” on accountability. Whether you forgo college to pursue writing through self-discipline and training seminars, or apply to a four-year university, you should think of it as money/time/energy invested into accountability.
The writer who is so self-disciplined that he doesn’t need a prod to keep going is extremely-rare-to-mythical.
You need people in your life to push you. To set deadlines for you. To hold the rope when you’re in danger. You need mentors who’ve climbed the mountain before. The “cheap” way is not without a price. The “expensive” way may cost less in non-financial currency. For example, my four years studying writing at a private college cost a lot of money, but I wrote more during that period than I have written in the seven tuition-free years since. Why? Because my writing professors made me write. You may not need other people to impose deadlines on you to make you write; I do.
Your safety gear as a writer is in the form of investments in accountability. Make good investments.
Hard to believe, but if you get started, feel out the options, and have the support of accountability, the adult climbing area will one day feel too small. You’ll hanker after the mountain.
What is one writing-related grip you could reach toward in the near future?
Tineke Bryson (Honors in Writing, Houghton College) lives in the very center of a pretty complicated Venn diagram, right where fiction and nonfiction, creating and editing, and North American, European, and West African culture meet. Tineke grew up abroad, and before joining The One Year Adventure Novel, she worked as an editor.
She and her husband, Matthias, live in Lawrence, Kansas. She loves British history, reading YA fantasy, and collecting moths.
What’s a writing grip I can reach in the near future? That’s a good question. I’ve been thinking about it for a few days, and I think I maybe want to try for my first rejection letter soon. So… I guess I’ll try editing a short story or poem and submitting it to a magazine. Is that not ambitious enough? It feels ambitious to me.
“I think I maybe want to try for my first rejection letter”—I love this so much! No, that’s definitely ambitious, because it takes courage!
Beautiful ‘hands on’ coaching for the upward bound imaginations. Loved the imagery. They say going down the mountain is the hardest part. Any analogous wisdom to that?