Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Encountering Wannabee Writers

Elsewhere on the intarwebs, I read: "Authors Write Today; Pretenders Write Tomorrow." The implication, of course, is that if you are a real writer, you write all the time. Write as in, you deliver your thousand or five hundred or twenty-five hundred words, day in and day out. I think that's balderdash: it works for some writers, but not everyone. Some successful authors write in maniacal spurts, putting in 16 hour days, drafting novels in a few weeks, and then going long periods of time without any word output but with intense, deep rejuvenation and development of creative ideas.

The second, and perhaps more important aspect of the quote -- for I am by no means the first to point out that writers have different rhythms and one size does not fit all -- is the implication that being a "wannabee," a person who aspires to be a writer but never actually writes, is a bad thing. At best, a pathetic thing.

I am as likely as the next person to shower wannabees with advice on how to get started and stay motivated. I rarely pay attention to whether the advice is actually being solicited and whether it is helpful. I buy into the notion that this person should be other than the way he or she is, that wanting to write, dreaming about being a writer and talking endlessly about it, pretending to be a writer, are unacceptable.

Sometimes, "wannabee" is a stage people pass through and either go forward to do the work of writing, or leave and go on to dream about something else. Other people stay with wanting/dreaming/talking. It seems to be sufficient for their emotional needs, and that means they're getting something of value from it. A sense of self-importance? Of belonging to the "cabal of writers?" Trying out daydreams of different possibilities? Getting attention from well-meaning helpful authors?

I think there can be great value in daydreaming, even about things we will never do.
For most of my life, I've dreamt about being a ballerina. I had a few years of dance when I was a child, and then again as a young adult, but never the rigorous training necessary for professional performance (nor do I have a suitable body type for ballet). I think my life has been enriched by imagining myself dancing on stage, leaping and pirouetting to glorious music. It's a way of living a different life, seeing the world through the lens of a different art. I think the same might be true for people who want to write: what it's about is not necessarily wanting to actually spend endless hours learning the craft of handling prose, but imagining themselves as different people, of belonging to a different world, perhaps of escaping from the restrictions of the way their own lives have played out.

If there is value in dreaming and talking about wanting to write, I also wonder who it hurts? Does wanting take the place of actually doing it? (Some writers won't discuss their works-in-progress because doing so dissipates the build-up of creative energy.) Is that so bad a thing? Does imagining yourself a successful author provide a soporific that keeps you in a dead-end job? If so, is the best way out of that situation to be shamed about never actually writing? Or does the aspiration provide a small but continuous impetus to change the situation?

I suspect that the worst thing about wannabees is that they are annoying. Their conversation has the semblance of a writerly discussion without any substance. They dominate the conversation with their own story ideas (often in excruciating detail) and take up about as much of a professional writer's time as they can. I've been cornered by wannabees, politely listening and offering suggestions, only to realize that the point of the conversation was not a request for encouragement or tips on how to get started, but a captive audience for the wannabee's oration. The problem, as I see it now that I am calmer, is not that this person has never written a word, but that this person has presented one type of interaction under the guise of another. I've gotten myself trapped into being a captive listener (and one that conveys status because I am a Published Author) under false pretenses. So of course I'm irritated.

Most of us who have been around fans with poor social skills figure out how to gracefully detach ourselves from prolonged interactions. We learn how to be courteous while maintaining appropriate professional social boundaries. But because so many of us love talking about writing and have been encouraged by those writers who have gone before us, we are particularly vulnerable to the desire to "pay forward" to newer writers. The problem, as I see it, is that we don't have an accurate perception of the "wannabee game," which is not about learning writing craft but sharing enthusiasm for a daydream.

Once we recognize that's what is going on, we can acknowledge the other person's aspirations-for-their-own-sake without getting drawn into a tedious and frustrating attempt to teach someone whose goal is not to learn.

The painting is by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), public domain.


  1. This post has given me a lot to think about. I love writing, so when someone says she wants to write, too, of course I want to offer help and suggestions. It never occurred to me that someone might only want a verbal high-five, and that's enough.

  2. "Verbal high-five" - I love it!

    I cross-posted this on the Book View Cafe blog, where Sherwood Smith pointed out that some people are eager to try all kinds of new things -- mountain climbing, playing a musical instrument, scuba diving with dolphins -- writing a novel. They make their lives into an adventure -- and isn't it wonderful that they consider writing as exciting as sky-diving? (Of course, little do they know how much more dangerous writing is...)