What Does a “Real” Writer Look Like?
Talking to a full-time screenwriter helped me realize that the path to writing success isn’t necessarily the one I’d imagined.
The backstory of a would-be writer
I’ve wanted to be a full-time writer for forty years. When I was eight years old, I thought the word for it was “journalist” so that’s how I answered the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be a journalist.”
My mother was skeptical. “Really? You want to report news stories?”
“No,” I’d responded, “I want to write books.”
“Oh, then the word you’re looking for is novelist.”
An avid reader with an unquenchable thirst for fantasy, horror and science fiction, I pictured myself writing books like Stephen King and Terry Brooks. I studied English at college but failed to graduate because I ran out of money. I worked secretarial jobs throughout my early to mid-twenties, and wrote my first novel on weekends and evenings. Back then, I constantly fantasized about getting my first big publishing contract so I could quit my day job and write full-time.
It took me years to complete that first novel. I submitted it to one publisher in the mid-nineties. By then I was working at a web design company that hired me to write web copy and search ads (and answer their phones).
I’m not sure how to change the voice that keeps yammering away in my head. It tells me I’m a failure, despite my past successes. It saps my creative energy and makes me give up too easily.
I couldn’t believe my luck. The job enabled me to use my writing skills, but it was also a creative drain. When my novel was rejected, I stuck it in a drawer (it was an actual printed copy) and allowed myself to get distracted by life — marriage, kids, and a job that had become a career.
That was nearly twenty years ago. I wouldn’t start writing fiction again until my late thirties.
Where I’m at now
These days, I make roughly 40% of my income from paid writing projects. I’ve also written and self-published three novels, and over the past four years have had more than twenty essays published on websites like The Washington Post, Longreads, Modern Loss, The Wisdom Daily, and others.
But I still don’t feel like a real writer. I blame that on a few different things. First, I’m not able to wholly support myself from my writing (yet). The bulk of my income comes from my digital marketing work and that’s been the case since 2002.
Also, and I have no good explanation for this, I tend to classify a lot of my writing as work that doesn’t count. I blogged about each of my kids from 2004 through 2017, but these were personal blogs and never had much of an audience. From 2005 to about 2008, I wrote a weekly column for a local newspaper. I was paid to write this column, yet I never mention it on resumes or employment profiles.
And then there are my novels — all three of which I worked on over the course of years, employing professional editors, cover designers, and a writing coach to help me refine them. They’re solid books, but since I self-published them and haven’t sold many of them, in my mind they don’t count.
I’m going to be 48 next month. It’s about time I started thinking of myself as a writer. But I’m not sure how to change the voice that keeps yammering away in my head. It tells me I’m a failure, despite my past successes. It saps my creative energy and makes me give up too easily.
In an attempt to quell this voice once and for all, I reached out to a friend of mine who is a successful screenwriter and ghostwriter — and has been supporting herself with her writing for many years. Among other things, I asked her if the daily reality of the writing life was different from what she’d imagined when they were younger. Did she also suffer from imposter syndrome?
Anna Powell— Screenwriter, ghostwriter, editor
At age 46, Anna Powell (this is a pseudonym) makes her living as a full-time writer, but that wasn’t always the case.
Says Anna, “I got my MFA in creative writing over twenty years ago and published in a few small ways, but my career as a writer really started taking off about ten years ago when I sold a screenplay to Twentieth Century Fox.”
This big break kicked off Anna’s career. “I worked as a screenwriter for a number of years, then switched over to my current career in fiction — doing ghostwriting, editing, and fiction under my own name and nom de plumes.”
Anna has published five books as a ghostwriter or under a nom de plume, two of those books were best sellers in Germany. She’s also had success as a fiction editor.
“It’s taken me longer than I expected to get here — I imagined a lot more early success — but I am slowly circling the writing life I imagined I would have.”
When I asked Anna if her current writing reality matched her past expectations, she replied, “I fantasized that I would start my day like Edith Wharton and write while I had breakfast in bed, then I would be Emerson and take a walk in my woods, come back inspired and write some more, then lunch, another walk (or nap) and then write until dinner, where I would happily consort with my family.
“I imagined uninterrupted, contemplative time to work. I also figured I would be pretty much an instant best seller. I did not take into consideration that both Emerson and Wharton were independently wealthy, and had servants, and in the case of Emerson, a wife to raise his kids and take care of his household.”
“If I had told my younger self that I would find my first real success as a ghostwriter, I would have believed I had sold out.”
Her daily writing life involves a lot of collaboration with her agent, fellow screenwriters, or clients who have hired her to ghostwrite their projects.
Says Anna, “I never imagined I would work as collaboratively as I do, but I find it suits me. I like being the conduit for other people’s stories or working with a partner. It’s taken me longer than I expected to get here — I imagined a lot more early success — but I am slowly circling the writing life I imagined I would have. The path was different, but the destination might be the same.”
I asked Anna what advice she would give to new or aspiring writers based on her years of experience and current level of success. She had three key tips.
“Be flexible. Be creative. Don’t be precious with your work and your talent. If I had told my younger self that I would find my first real success as a ghostwriter, I would have believed I had sold out. But it turned out I like to work with people, and I see real value in helping folks with a story to tell, but who don’t have the skill to get it onto paper.
Never say no to anything until you have the luxury (financially and career wise) to do so. I’ve taken on many projects where I had to learn on the job (and I still do this) and even though I might struggle a bit in the beginning, I always come out of those jobs as a better writer with new skills.
Stop talking and worrying and plotting it all out and just write. Your first draft doesn’t have to be good — it’s merely opening the door to your final draft.”
Anna’s writing career may not be what she’d initially envisioned, but she is one of the most successful writers I know. I find it inspiring that her version of writing life doesn't match what was in my imagination. It makes me want to hear more stories, from more writers who don’t fit the rigid mold I’d crafted in my imagination three decades ago. It makes me want to break that mold.
I think I might be ready to let go of my own dream of being a Stephen-King like bestselling author with books lining the shelves of every book store.
My own writing life is a modest one, but it's not hard for me to imagine a day when, like Anna Powell, I'm making a full time living as a writer.
To my surprise, I’ve discovered that it doesn't matter if I achieve this by writing articles and blog posts for clients, as well as my own personal essays, self-published novels, and poems. If I can carve my schedule out the way I want, spend my working hours writing, and make a good living from something I love, then that’s enough for me.