How to be a writer

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

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I became a writer relatively late, well into my 40s. That makes me a second-career or mid-career writer, even though by now, I rarely use the qualifiers at all. Like millions of other people in the world, I now identify myself simply as a writer. It seemed like a great act of personal delusion (or vanity) to think I could join the ranks of such an exalted club, the one full of people whose tools are only mind and pen, and it took me a while to get there.

I do not recall the exact moment, but I do remember the awkward conversations during the most self-doubting times. There was, for instance, the dinner party where my friend, the hostess, seated me beside a Pulitzer Prize-winning author as if we had something in common. I had recently finished the first draft of a novel, and on my desktop floated the files of a dozen or so essays that were in the process of being ignored by the legions of editors who received them in their inbox. I was 49 years old.

“You’re both writers!” my well-meaning friend said, her enthusiasm no salve for the mortification I was certain awaited me when the famous author lobbed me the inevitable question.

“So what do you do?” he asked before the appetizer even arrived.

Up until that point, I had answered that question in terms of what I used to do: I worked in television news, produced for Barbara Walters, had a career in broadcast journalism and, later, Internet media. Now, I was embarrassed to utter what I was working frenziedly in hopes of becoming — to some extent, him.

“I’m a substitute French teacher,” I said. Not exactly a lie, but an obfuscation. I’d yet to figure out how to officially admit myself to a profession where, unlike medicine, hairdressing, law, nanoscience, teaching, or carpentry, there was no real barrier to entry. Anyone could declare herself a writer. Opportunity was just one click away, since the algorithms read my web searches and, it seemed, my mind. “Get published!” flashed my computer screen, as if it were as simple as booking a cheap flight to Chicago.

I may have been born with a need to write, but I had to learn to be a writer. My decades-long resistance came from something deeply connected to the idea of work. Writing had seemed self-indulgent, something for the independently wealthy, or the domain of rare, mad genius. In 1982, I graduated with a degree in Russian Studies and a fat folder of overwrought prose from my creative writing classes. My characters tended to be deranged Muscovites who shambled along the promenades of the Côte d’Azur –homage, I suppose, to Andrei Bely, Alexander Blok, and Anton Chekhov, my literary gods at the time. But after college, that was that. I never entertained the idea that people had careers as writers. Journalists, yes, those who went to work and were handed actual assignments, called it a day, and went out for beers. But men and women who scribbled all day crafting a single beautiful sentence and swilling liters of black coffee like Honoré de Balzac? Work was a place with an office, colleagues, a supply closet full of Scotch tape and Post-its. A ladder to be scaled as quickly as possible. In such jobs, it would be easy to measure success. In such jobs, my missteps would be clear and quantifiable. In such jobs, you got paychecks and raises and had to deal with bosses and the copy machine. Plus, I could not afford not to work and did not understand that there was another way to be a writer — to work at a bookstore, as a bartender or a copy editor and ply the craft before breakfast.

So I had a career, moved laterally and upwards across Manhattan to other positions and across the ocean for several more. I jumped around a lot, went from ABC to CBS to NBC, to producing an A&E biography on the Pope, back to ABC, to two Internet media companies. A stifled artist was scratching through all of my work identities, and though my jobs were fascinating I never really had the mettle to soldier on. I turned down more opportunities than I can count, and often thought to myself, “Because now it’s time to write.” At the last minute, bank account draining, courage always eluded me, and I moved on to another producing job.

Throughout my professional years, I kept diaries, journals, reporter’s pads, and notebooks. At times, I untangled those disparate threads into orderly prose. I started 14 novels in an attempt to make sense of whatever was churning both in and around me. They were extractions from life, and I remember my consternation at the pointlessness of writing them down only for myself. The locations were uniformly exotic — Prague, Dubai, Marrakech, Damascus, Krakow — and they all contained a conflicted journalist protagonist who looked remarkably like me.

So far, I had only been an employee, so I needed to innovate — to build my own scaffolding for a working day, rein in distraction, construct a module that both contained and gave shape to my new profession. There was the writing itself, and then there was the career part: polish my work, get published, get an agent, get noticed, get paid. I discovered a bursting kernel of ambition within myself, and a competitive streak. I had few publishing connections and was never particularly lucky, but I wanted this badly.

…I’m not 22 or even 42 and do not have the benefit of time, but I do have one advantage. I arrived here fully formed, certain of only one thing: there is no handbook for this. There is trial, error, and work, work, work. My disappointments are often followed by a glimpse of hope. The first novel found an agent but not a buyer. I was briefly destroyed. I wrote an essay about a woman I had met in the Soviet Union, sent it to an anthology, and accidentally became a travel writer.

…At first, the emotional game of skeet nauseated me, but I adapted. Vulnerability was the price of admission. I was a mother of two teenagers and sliding into my sixth decade, but the energy I had surprised even me. Early on, I looked around at publishing success and felt uneasy. There were moments I believed there were actually more writers than readers. Who the hell did I think I was, pecking away in the woods? Every time I read about a middle-aged first-time writer, I needed to know his or her story. Was there luck, powerful connections, or just raw genius? I’ve relaxed greatly on this front. We can all take out the yardstick and measure other writers’ successes, especially now that social media seems custom-made for crowing. I have tried to stand tall through many failures and to stay humble when I am published. One person’s day of game-changing news could be another’s morning of crushing disappointment. If we’re honest, envy is often baked into the writer’s cake, especially one waiting for a big break. It is also, rationally, a complete waste of time.

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