“How to Become a Writer? Start Writing”

Advice from a Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed podcast.

The podcast “Dear Sugars” is hosted by Steve Almond, a short story writer, essayist, and author of 10 books, and Cheryl Strayed, memoirist, novelist, essayist, and author of 4 books. Here is an excerpt from one of their podcasts reprinted in the New York Times:

Dear Sugars,
My career path has been shaped by fear and expectation. I had a fortunate upbringing, sheltered from financial struggles, but when I was in college, my mother went through bankruptcy and I began to understand financial insecurity. I dropped my pursuit of journalism to become a C.P.A. because seeing what my mom went through scared me. I convinced myself that I wanted to be an accountant. Isn’t it funny how we trick ourselves into seeing the silver lining? I’m not tricking myself anymore. I’m just 25, and yet I feel as though parts of myself have been obliterated: my creativity, my genuineness, my passion.
A few months ago, I had a dream that I wrote a book. The dream was so powerful that it woke me from my sleep in tears. When I have a bad day at work or feel hopeless about figuring out what’s next, I think about that dream. How do I get closer to it? Do I quit my mediocre-paying job with benefits to work as a barista and figure it out, or do I stay in it, though I feel depleted? Do I find a way to care less about work?
Career Purgatory
Cheryl Strayed: I think you had that dream because writing is for you a powerful call, C. P. Listen to that. But also remember there’s a whole lot between having a dream and making it come true. Writing a book is drudgery. It requires an apprenticeship. I suggest that you begin by doing it. Sign up for a workshop or take a vacation and spend it writing. See where that leads you. You don’t have to immediately quit your job to become a writer. You need only to start writing.
Steve Almond: Adam Smith talked about the invisible hand of the market. What you’re experiencing is the invisible hand of art, the desire to pursue a life of creativity. That’s beautiful. But it’s unlikely to lead to financial security, at least in the short term, which is important to you because of your mother’s experiences. So you have to do what every artist does: find a patron. It might help to think of your accounting gig as that patron, at least for now. It will underwrite your apprenticeship, and help you uncouple your artistic aspirations from financial expectation, so you can write what you feel called to write without worrying about whether it will make money. It’s worth thinking, too, about the role you want writing to play in your life and what you’re willing to sacrifice to make that happen. I realize this doesn’t sound very romantic, but there is a practical aspect to the pursuit of our dreams. You have to ask yourself a few candid questions about what you consider essential, whether it’s a decent car or a nice place to live or enough financial security to keep anxiety at bay. The last thing you want is for writing to become a source of stress, because you’ll come to resent it as you do your current job.

When I read this piece, many thoughts filtered through my mind. First, I can’t begin to count the number of people I’ve met who had a creative background, subsumed it to follow a more ‘logical’ life-path (i.e., job security), only to end up pursuing writing because their safe course of action proved to be stultifying and not where their true passion lies. This falls into “follow your bliss” territory, find something which energizes and enlivens you, then pursue that.

But having made that discovery, THEN what? That’s the essence of the listener’s question. I thought Strayed and Almond made some really good points among them:

  • “Writing a book is drudgery. It requires an apprenticeship”: You can’t expect to nail the craft right away. It takes time and oftentimes mentors. You can also study pro writers through interviews and their writing. You need guidance. Seek it out.
  • “…you have to do what every artist does: find a patron”: Basically keep a gig which covers your monthly nut and frees you up to pursue your creative ambitions without relying on that to provide income
  • “You need only to start writing”: If you feel the call of your creativity, at some point it’s imperative you give expression to your inspiration. How to do that? Start. Writing. That’s key to finding your unique writer’s voice.

The rest of the podcast is great and you can listen to it here.

Twitter: @dearsugarradio, @cherylstrayed, @stevealmondjoy.