Sometimes I wish we treated writing more like running.
Or swimming. Or cycling. Or any athletic pursuit, really. I’ve been thinking about this ever since I was asked, during a recent webinar, how new writers could build more confidence in their work’s merit. It was a good question, an understandable and relatable question, but it also struck me as perhaps the wrong question. And it certainly wasn’t the asker’s fault but rather our collective relationship with writing in general.
In what other endeavor in life are we so preoccupied with whether something is “good” right out of the gate? Why must we worry about having confidence in the worth of our work when we’re just starting out? If you’re a beginning runner, brand-new to the sport, confidence in your superior running abilities is likely the last thing on your mind. You’re more preoccupied with building a habit, finding your rhythm, and actually finishing what you set out to do. On your first 5k, your loved ones will not cheer you on in the hopes that you finish first but that you finish, period. Finishing is cause enough for celebration.
How I wish it were the case in writing.
But each year, I hear from readers whose families and friends tie writing to publishing and believe that any amount of the former without the latter is a waste of time and energy. This strikes me as remarkably unfair. No one asks a beginner swimmer when exactly they’ll begin competing. To enjoy swimming is reason enough to swim. To enjoy writing should be reason enough to write.
And yet writers still get asked: Where have you been published? Or: Have you been in the New York Times? I only read the Times. Or: Is that novel finished yet? Haven’t you been working on it for months? Or, worst: Do you really think you’ll ever make it as a writer?
Make it as a writer. Make it! What does that even mean? Even many Olympic athletes – our gold-medal shooters, curlers, or javelin throwers – don’t always “make it,” if that means earning an income doing solely what we love. While some become celebrities who appear in Nike commercials and sponsored Instagram posts, so many other medalists return from the Games to their day jobs or side gigs. They have proven to be the best at what they do in the world, and it still might not be enough to cover rent each month. I don’t think many of us on the sidelines are walking up to Olympians and asking them if it was worth it; for that matter, I don’t think many of us are asking casual runners the same thing.
What’s more, it’s probably easier to measure an athlete’s prowess than a writer’s because rejections in sports are usually based off of concrete, data-driven results: Your finish time is two minutes longer than your competitor’s; ergo, you did not qualify for the finals. In publishing, you could be rejected because an editor just published a story too similar to yours, or was in a foul mood that morning, or “just didn’t love it enough.” Where is the stopwatch or ruler for “not loving something enough?”
Sometimes in life, we choose to chase something because we want to, because we need to. If only it were as simple for writers to embrace their craft the way we do other pursuits. If only it were as simple for their loved ones to do the same.
My best advice when questioned about your desire to pursue writing is to simply say, “Because I need to.” And try, if at all possible, to shake off the need for loved ones’ approval and understanding. You are a writer – no matter if you’ve never published a word! – so long as you’ve written one. Because a runner is someone who wakes up and chooses running. Even when they’ve had a long day, even when it’s hard, even when they feel like they’ve plateaued, they keep running. An ice skater wakes up and chooses skating. A swimmer wakes up and chooses to swim. And every day, you wake up and you choose writing.
Being a writer is as simple and as difficult as that.
—Nicki Porter served as the editor of The Writer from 2016 to 2022; she previously served as its associate editor. Before helming The Writer, she worked as a food editor for Madavor Media and America’s Test Kitchen. She’s also written for a number of publications and spoken at writing conferences across the country. Learn more at nickiporter.com.Originally Published