Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

What Separates the Real Writers from the Amateurs

Writer_What-I-Do“So you’re an author, huh?” the young man asked me. “I’ve often thought that I could write a book someday.”

While I’m sure he was trying to be polite (OK, I’m not at all sure he was trying to be polite but I’m determined to give him the benefit of the doubt), this was precisely the wrong thing to say.

I could write a book someday“? Did he also wake up this morning and say, “Hey! I could write a symphony today” or “I say! It would be jolly good fun to dash off a cracking new opera”?

I’m guessing not. That’s because writing a symphony or opera takes years of training. It takes education. It takes actual work. Which is not something that non-writers tend to associate with writing.

But this is a grave mistake. Writing is hard work, even if it doesn’t look like it from the outside.

If you’re a real writer, you write. Every. Freakin’. Day. Even when you don’t enjoy it, especially when you don’t enjoy it, you write anyway. You read and read, and then you read some more. You study what works and what doesn’t. You put your words out into the world and hope some of them resonate.

You don’t sit around and think about writing a book someday. You write, and a book might become one result of many.

Yesterday I read an excellent interview with literary agent Christopher Ferebee, who represents many clients in religious publishing. His final paragraph tells it like it is:

If you had only one piece of advice for a writer who is just getting started, what would it be?

This has changed for me. I used to simply say, “Write about what you’re passionate about.” But Steven Pressfield and others have challenged this for me. Basically, the challenge of being a writer is to write whether you’re feeling it or not. I don’t know if this is original to Michael Hyatt or if he was quoting someone, but his tweet a few days back sums it up perfectly: “Amateurs write when they are inspired. Professionals get inspired when they write.” My advice these days? Write, and don’t stop writing.

Write, and don’t stop writing. Great advice.

For me, blogging has been a surprising aspect of that journey. I began blogging seriously in 2010 primarily because my publisher told me to build an audience, and I saw the wisdom in that from a marketing perspective. But to my delight, blogging also made me a better writer — more responsive to readers, more disciplined, more engaged with the world.

writing is workI used to be one of those people who waited around for the muses to have their caffeine fix and all the stars to align before I sat down to Be Serious. And somehow, it rarely happened.

What worked instead was the boring discipline of parking my butt in a chair almost every morning whether I wanted to write or not.

There’s little glamor in being an author, and absolutely no glamor in writing itself. As Buffy would say, “It’s hard and it’s painful and it’s every day.” But real writers know the value in that.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Not only does the combination of needing to write every day and needing to build an audience in order to be a real writer remind me that I am and always will be an amateur, but if having to do something every day, or nearly so, is the indicator of being a professional at it, I think it also tells me that I am an amateur at everything! Now I just have to decide what I think about that. 🙂

  • This reminds me of David Rakoff’s delightful take-down of the portrayal of ‘creatives’ in the musical Rent (from his book Half Empty):

    “…hanging out does not make one an artist. A secondhand wardrobe does not make one an artist. Neither do a hair-trigger temper, melancholic nature, propensity for tears, hating your parents, nor even HIV – I hate to say it – none of these make one an artist. They can help, but just as being gay does not make one witty […], the only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out.”

    It’s particularly touching coming from him, because in the same essay he admits to having been, for years, too terrified even to try to write.

    Thanks for this, Jana. It’s a good reminder.

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