It seems that most people think it’s really easy to be a writer. Like being a musician, according to the Minnesota Orchestral Association management. Like a corporate employee, only basic skills are required to do the job. Really? I don’t think so, and MOA management’s beliefs and attitudes about musicians is a huge obstacle in the ongoing labor dispute. But it made me think. What does it take to be a Writer, not a writer; or a Professional Writer as opposed to an amateur hobbyist?
Back in 2011, I created a professional job description for a creative writer that outlined what a professional writer is expected to do nowadays. What I want to talk about here is what it takes to be that professional writer. For example, to be a medical doctor, a person needs to study math and science classes in high school and college, attend medical school, pass a medical licensing exam, and train as an intern, resident, and then do a residency and/or fellowship in whatever specialty he’s chosen. It’s a long slog of education and training, but at the end, he’ll be a medical doctor, already practicing his occupation.
A professional writer’s education begins at birth, often without her knowing it. Some writers, however, do know at a young age what they want to do with their lives as adults. Let’s take me as an example: I didn’t know. But I was surrounded by people who loved literature, reading, and telling stories, and a grandmother who believed in nurturing the imagination. My father recognized from my pestering to learn how to read that I was an early learner and taught me the alphabet, how to print my name, and how to read Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, my favorite book at the time. I learned with a voracious appetite.
I loved reading all through school. Writing wasn’t a chore, as I noticed it was for some of my friends. In sixth grade, I began writing short stories, mostly science fiction about other planets or our space exploration, that my teacher read aloud to the class. Yes, I published in school publications in Junior High and High School, but I was also busy with other things. I lived for music. I loved watching TV and movies, and I loved theater. I was active in the school Drama Club, the International Thespian Society, and in music — choir, piano accompanist, and taking piano lessons. Music had also been an integral part of my life from an early age. Then I discovered psychology. I loved trying to figure out why people do the things they do.
So far in my education, I have not focused any specific efforts on writing or literature. I was in the Advanced Placement English class, however. In my senior year, when a scheduling conflict landed me in a regular English class, my teachers conspired to create a challenging independent study for me in which I read James Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, researched the study questions they gave me, and then wrote about the novel. Learning by doing. It’s still my favorite way of learning.
I could not limit myself to just one interest or one hobby or one course of study. My parents encouraged me to volunteer; I grew up in the Girl Scouts; I had my own babysitting business in high school; I hung out at the State University in my hometown; and during the summers, I played and read. Throughout college, I followed much the same MO, fulfilling a dream to study in Europe my junior year and getting my BA in music, traveling and working. Still not focused on writing. In fact, I took only one English class in four years of college — a literature class to fulfill a requirement.
After college, I grabbed life and shook it, failing spectacularly at one point, but picking myself up and moving on. I did not begin to write in earnest until I’d been in the workforce for over seven years. I’d been too busy living. Even then, success was far from my grasp, but not rejections. I was learning by doing again, the very definition of apprenticeship. I learned from many different writing teachers, taking classes at the University of Minnesota, The Loft Literary Center, Dickinson College, and my favorite writing magazine, The Writer.
I’ve often wondered what young writers fresh out of the Masters programs have to write about. Being in a creative writing Masters program? Life in academia? We’ve seen a lot of that from young writers. It is the rare young writer who can write with the insight, knowledge, and wisdom of someone who has worked for at least ten years in a job outside of academia and writing, who has married and is a parent, who has dealt with an aging, ill parent, or who has explored the world in other ways to experience physical existence. If stories are the way we humans share our experience of life, then doesn’t it make sense that the first requirement of any professional writer would be to have had life experiences?
Years ago when I first began working on my professional writing, I heard one of those sayings that threaten to become a “universal truth,” i.e. the first book of any fiction writer is always a coming of age story. I suppose it makes sense: to write of childhood, adolescence and the passage into adulthood through some dramatic catalyst for the first big story. But I refused. Let others write their coming of age stories. I wanted to write a story that wasn’t autobiographical in any way. I determined to write what I did not know in order to figure it out. Learning by doing again.
So, study and degrees, knowledge of language and usage and of dramatic narrative, writing everyday, and reading ferociously are not the only things a writer needs in his toolbox to create stories. He also needs life experience and the imagination to spin a good yarn….