Becoming a Writer

Posted on 16/08/2013
By Commonwealth Foundation

Farah Ghuznavi Visiting Writers Becoming a Writer
As writers, in addition to everything else we fret over – and believe me, that’s quite a list – we sometimes struggle with one thing that I suspect less often afflicts those in other professions. Earning an income, juggling competing demands on one’s time, living with continuous self-doubt and dealing with rejection on an alarmingly frequent basis all come with the territory. But quite apart from that, unlike say a plumber or a policy expert, a surprising number of writers actually hesitate to identify themselves as such.
That insecurity is partly related to the vexing question of when and whether you can call yourself a writer, especially if you don’t actually make a living from writing. Most authors, however much they might wish it otherwise, have day jobs – whether as journalists, academics, researchers, copy editors, or in completely unrelated fields such as law, banking or development work.
So under the circumstances, criteria other than primary source of income need to be applied when considering whether or not someone is entitled to call themselves a writer. One widely used criterion is publication. Most writers feel an enormous pressure to demonstrate published work – much as actors feel about their credits, I suspect. And of course being published makes it easier for others to recognise someone as a writer. Nevertheless, the greatest pressure to publish is probably the one that we inflict on ourselves, because it seems like an indisputable way of establishing credibility in the eyes of society, and thereby validates our claims to a literary identity.
Of course, as anyone casting a casual eye around a bookstore can verify, publication is by no means an infallible way of assessing a writer’s claims. There is a great deal of mediocre work taking up shelf space out there. Just as there is perhaps even more very good work still languishing unpublished in a drawer, or slowly suffocating in despair as it lies in the depths of the publishers’ slush pile.
Although it has been a game changer, the Internet continues to be a mixed blessing, complicating the author’s life even as it has brought enormous opportunities. On the one hand, there are now many more avenues for publication available to the budding author, given the wide range of online magazines, websites and blogs on the web. And that is without even taking into account the options of self-publishing and e-books, which so many writers have successfully utilised as a means of promoting their work and gaining recognition.
In comparison to the time when authors once had to rely exclusively on printing presses and traditional publishers, the web now allows both readers and writers to transcend physical and political boundaries in order to connect with each other. But the democracy of the Internet and the ease of self-publishing have also meant that quality is, all too often, no barrier to being published online. I have no doubt that in the long run it will be the best websites and online journals that fight their way up in a Darwinian race to the top. But we are still far from that stage of development, and the Internet is flooded with all kinds of literary offerings: from excellent, execrable and indifferent, to all the shades in between.
So if being published isn’t always the most reliable criterion of a writer’s worth, what is? And what, if anything, is required to justify an individual’s claims to be a writer? I have heard it said many times that if you write, you are a writer. I am going to stick my neck out here and suggest that that is perhaps too simplistic a perspective. After all, anyone who is literate can essentially write – at least, in the most literal sense of the word. But that is very far from meaning that we can all write equally well.
I’m aware that even the words “well-written” are loaded, given what a subjective experience reading is. So without getting embroiled in semantics or questions of subjectivity – and with advance apologies for the alliteration – let me set out some of the key characteristics that I see as being part of a writer’s identity.

Passion: You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you? But let’s be honest, it’s the hallmark of any truly creative person. Inspiration may start you on the journey, but it requires passion to drive that process in order to actually get you somewhere. It is essential to be passionate about what you do, in order to make sure that you keep at it. That you continue producing work when you are not sure that it is any good, when no one seems interested in reading or publishing it, when you feel like screaming because you would rather be doing anything else – really, anything at all, including cleaning out the gigantic dust bunnies of decades past that you know lurk in your basement!

And after a day when you think you just can’t take it anymore – that the frustration is going to kill you if you don’t give up this doomed endeavour – you drag your sorry carcass to bed, wake up the next morning and start all over again. And the truth is, on a good day, there’s nothing better than feeling the words flowing out of your fingertips onto the screen/page and taking form before your eyes; nothing that beats the soaring sensation of knowing that you are creating something unique, and in its own way, beautiful.

Personal development: That unending search to find better ways of doing what you do. We all have different ways of approaching this, of course. The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe once said, “I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to teach me how to write… I prefer to stumble on it.” Whether you are one of those who like to carve out their own path through the wilderness, or whether you are willing to take a little cartographic help from someone who has been on a similar journey before you, the most important thing is the desire to learn, and the drive to be the best that you are capable of being. However talented a writer is, complacency can be a dangerous thing, and there are very few – I would say no-one, really – who can afford to succumb to it.

Professionalism: This is one of the easier tasks, at least in relative terms. It is about making sure that you do the research before you send in a submission, that you polish your work until it shines, that you accept any critiques with maturity, and above all, that you avoid what in school were known as “careless mistakes”. That wonderful invention, the personal computer, even offers the laziest of us the option of doing a painless spelling and grammar check. So there is no excuse for gratuitous errors.

Persistence: You are unlikely to get very far without this. The writer’s life is littered with rejections, whether they come from peers in your writing group, your confused family and friends who think that you should really “just concentrate on your job, and give up all this nonsense”, or the editors and publishers to whom you send out your lovingly-crafted efforts.

Persistence can also be a tricky one. Every writer needs to learn how to accept and utilise both criticism and critiques, and to distinguish between constructive criticism and the other kind. My rule of thumb on critiques roughly corresponds to the three following categories, based on the assumption that I am receiving the feedback from people who are reasonably generous of spirit and genuinely interested in my work:
a)    Around 50% of the comments will probably contain some useful information. It’s my job to go through them and figure out how I can use those observations to improve my work
b)   Around 25% of the comments will be valid in that they identify problems, but frustratingly, these are shortcomings that I may or may not be able to fix, even if I recognise that there is some merit to the points being made
c)    The remaining 25% of the comments can be disregarded, if I feel that the reader does not “get” this particular story that I am trying to tell, or does not like my writing style or the subject matter. This can easily happen, not least because enjoyment is so subjective – and it should never be taken personally, provided it is delivered in a respectful tone.
It can be very hard to accept critical feedback, because each time we put something on the page we are essentially offering the reader a small piece of our souls, and any rejection of that can feel like a rejection of oneself. But it’s important to approach critique in as open-minded a manner as possible, because it is one of our key tools for learning; however painful the process might be at times. As the poet Rumi put it, “If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?”

Publication: In some ways, this is the hardest. Most of us want our work to be read by someone, and the competition is brutal at every stage of the process. I will discuss this further in my next post, as well as answering some of the questions that have been sent in on the subject of publishing. For now, let me say that publication can, and often does, reflect a minimum level of merit. But there are no guarantees, no matter how good you are. Talent and hard work are necessary but not always sufficient conditions. Sometimes it’s about connections. Sometimes it’s about luck.  You may need enormous reserves of patience and determination to survive the process. But I do believe that once you have the other four points mentioned here properly covered, the fifth – if that’s what you really want – will fall into place. Trust me! Sooner or later, it will.