Last night I was invited to give a talk about writing to a women’s group, which was an honor and a pleasure. I so appreciate the attention and interest of those 25 women, who asked such intelligent questions and so generously celebrated my accomplishments. Following is the text of what I shared about myself.
I’m honored and excited to be invited to speak to you, because of what this group does and what it’s meant to my family, and also because it’s a huge treat for me to talk about writing. It’s my hobby and my passion, and just thinking about it makes me a little bit giddy with excitement.
That wasn’t always the case, though. I can’t remember not wanting to be a writer, but that secret wish came with a lot of preconceptions and self-doubts. I thought I’d have to measure up to some impossible standard of good enough, that being an author meant writing books full-time, making a lot of money and getting a lot of critical acclaim. That’s a really unreasonable thing to try to live up to before you’ve even written anything. The business of writing and publishing is pretty intimidating, and I was definitely intimidated. I used to get acutely jealous when I heard about authors being published, partly because I doubted that I’d ever be able to do what they did.
Though I wrote a lot growing up and in school, both fiction and non-fiction, right after college I didn’t write at all. My creative well felt empty, my desire to write seemed like an impossible dream. And then in my late 20s, I started jotting down random thoughts in a gratitude journal, just little sketches and ideas. That led into a MS Word file called “Realizations,” a journal that I’ve continued for 13 years and thousands of pages. I started writing poetry and short stories, which eventually led to a novella, and then to my first novel. I wrote the novel fast, finishing a draft in about three weeks, and wrote it trying very hard. I wanted it to be amazing, to be successful, to be a bestseller. And predictably the result wasn’t very good at all—it was contrived and trite. I still have it, but I can’t bring myself to read it again.
At the time I tried to shop it around to agents, because I thought that’s what you did next. If my book was going to be a bestseller, it had to be sold. Again, predictably, I had no luck, because not only is it incredibly difficult and time-consuming to query agents, but my story just wasn’t good enough to warrant their attention. In a sense I failed, but I was and am still proud of the fact that I tried, even if the result wasn’t what I hoped it would be.
I gave up on queries, made some halfhearted rewrites, and things might have ended there. In 2009, my life went through one of those major transitions which shakes everything up, and when it finally settled I had a revelation about writing. I realized that I’d been writing for some sort of preconceived idea of success—acclaim, fame and fortune—but what I really wanted to do was write for FUN. I wanted to have FUN with writing, no matter what the end result might be, and I wanted to write books that were fun to read. Books that you could take on vacation, read by the pool or curled up under blankets, that didn’t attempt to challenge or influence but just to entertain. I redefined what success in writing meant to me.
This is part of the journal entry I wrote about it:
I know I want to write books. I want to write them and have them published, and have people all over the world read and enjoy them. I want them to be intelligent, interesting and escapist – to create a fantasy that invites anyone to enter, to enjoy. I don’t want to write bleak, dark, realistic literature, the next American novel. I want to write a number of great little reads, books that people give each other as gifts and take on vacation with them. Perhaps the books introduce them to a new idea in passing, because they are full of ideas and well-researched facts – in passing. But the characters, the dialogue, the plots, the settings, the emotions stimulated, these will be what people appreciate and enjoy most about my books.
In letting go of any other expectations for outcomes, I finally accepted who I wanted to be as a writer. Not what anybody else had been in the history of the world, just me. About a month later I had the idea for Strangers on This Road, which came together in a few weeks—followed by a sequel, and another, and on from there. I found my voice and genre, I love it because it’s true to me. Writing became exhilarating, it became a source of endless happiness and fulfillment. I decided not to worry about querying agents, but to give that time and energy back into creating more books. I looked into print self-publishing, but it seemed cumbersome and expensive, so I didn’t worry about that either.
I did go ahead and pass my new novels onto friends and family to read, and received such sincerely positive feedback, it inspired me to write even more. My grandmother even complained that she’d stayed up past her bedtime reading one of my books, she couldn’t put it down, which is the highest praise I could have received. When I’d written seven books in the series and was considering starting an eighth, my mom forwarded me a link to Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s ebook publishing platform. That was the day everything came together for me. I published a book a month for seven months, and now have ten books published. I achieved my dream of being a published author, reaching readers all over the world, receiving all kinds of reviews—good, bad and in-between, and finding my own balance between marketing my work and writing it.
There are a lot of great reasons to publish through the traditional industry, and I’d never say no to that opportunity if it arose. But the world of publishing has changed through platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing/KDP. I now have a version of my first book available in print, and hope to shortly add the second, through Amazon CreateSpace, which prints a paperback copy on demand each time my book is ordered. Amazon assigned me an ISBN number, and I registered Strangers on This Road through the Library of Congress copyright office, making it feel even more official and real.
And while I’m so proud of what I’ve accomplished, it’s only been possible because of a core group of friends and family, especially my mom and good friend Tracy, for believing in and supporting me, because of KDP for what it offers me, and because of everyone out there who’s taken a chance on one of my books.
I know exactly how intimidating the idea of being an author is. For some of us it’s a lot harder to access confidence in ourselves as writers than it is for others. But I really believe that if we can let go of our preconceptions about what writing is or what it’s supposed to be, we find our way to what it is for us. That might be poetry or essays or recipes, it might be a blog followed by seven people or seven-hundred thousand people. It might be a journal, long emails to friends and family, witty tweets, or a series of 20 thick novels set in medieval France. Writing encompasses every genre, every style and length, every way we connect through the written word as people. That completely inspires me, and it drives me to keep finding enjoyment in every part of the process, from the high of finishing a first draft to the disappointment of reading a negative review. It’s all the joy of writing, and I wouldn’t trade any of it for the kind of success I once believed was the only acceptable outcome. What’s much more important is who I am as a writer.
2 thoughts on “Defining Who You Are as a Writer | author’s note”
How inspiring Emily! I have always wanted to be a writer, but haven’t done much writing since college. I am in transition right now and looking to shape a future very different than my past. Your heartfelt honesty about the challenges of becoming a published author and defining what you wanted to do and then just doing it really spoke to me.
I love your books and read the first seven back to back. I am always excited to read the next one; I especially enjoyed your most recent – An Empty House. I love how you have reoccurring characters in your series.
I just started following your blog recently and I really enjoy it.
Thank you for sharing with your loyal readers who are closet aspiring writers.
Cat, thank you so much!!! Your thoughtful comment truly made my day – I couldn’t be more glad or gratified to hear that my story spoke to you, not to mention that you’ve enjoyed my books. I believe every person who has the drive to write can find their own success, and the most challenging transitions (and even failures) we go through are powerful opportunities to change and grow. I have absolutely no doubt your future can be everything you want and more.
Wishing you the very best of luck – if you’d like, please keep in touch, and thank you again for reading and for giving me a HUGE ego boost!! 🙂