5 Lessons from 20 Years as a Writer


So, all this has happened at once: this is my 1,000th blog entry, at the same time I’m working on my tenth book (Shine). Also, 20 years ago I began classes for my Masters degree in Creative Writing and also began writing professionally.

The fact all these multiples of ten coincided felt significant–and the right time to think about what I’ve learned as an author.

Loneliness is a Job Requirement for Writers.

The formula for writing is this: become still and quiet, and then tell the truth.

As I writer, I’m trying to find the undercurrent of what is real about families or high school or love and tell that truth to the world. To do that, I must listen to the deepest parts of life, the quietest parts of myself. In other words, it’s not a group activity.

The solitude is the hardest part of writing for me. I feel disconnected from real people when I’m deep into a book. It’s a whole lot of being in my own head.

In the next twenty years, I’m hoping to find better balance here. I’m still learning how to turn off my computer–and my brain–when it’s time to go back to real life.

Writing is a J-O-B.

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If you want to write, plan on showing up like you would to clean tables as a pizza buffet. Hard work. Most days it feels meh and you have to slog your way through really bad first drafts, slow progress on projects that take years, and articles that are not actually as funny as they were in your head.

I have to make deals with myself to stay in the chair for even ten minutes. (“If I write five sentences, I can check the pantry. If I finish this page, I can check Instagram. No more hot tea until I finish today’s pages.”)

But EVERY SINGLE TIME—if I kept my butt in the chair—I finally find what I want to say.

Writing Does Get Easier.

For the past 12 years, I have written a weekly blog for teens. They were called W5s and I wrote about a current event and related it to a Bible story.

Because of all those hours, I became an expert at writing blogs for teens. The muscle memory developed slowly over thousands and thousands of hours of doing it. Like a marathon runner with miles behind me, the hard slowly evolved into easy fun.

If you want to write, take heart. As your pages add up, as you keep showing up, you learn the craft.

4. Writer’s Success is So Messed Up.

Fair warning: success in writing is so messed-up.

If you write, your goal is to see your words in print. The world will tell you (and you will tell yourself) that publishing your book is the very pinnacle of this process. “If I ONLY get my book into the world, I will be secure. I will feel loved. I will breathe the air of the accomplished.”

The truth is actually the opposite. As Anne Lamott puts it, “You will have to survive the publication of your book. And it will be awful.” Even JK Rowling admits her most wonderful moments as a writer have been when she is deep in her own imagination, creating the world of Hogwarts.

Why is this? It’s because, in its most magical moments, writing is playing. It is curiosity and connection and creating images and characters out of thin air. Nothing in the world comes close to the sheer exhilaration of this.

But publication?

Ugh. That is the business of sales numbers. It’s book signings when three readers show up. It’s sitting through interviews with people who haven’t even read your book.

Publishing anything feels like dropping your five-year-old of at Kindergarten. She will be misunderstood and ignored and you can’t defend her. It’s gut-wrenching.

The lesson here is that you are only the creator. Trying to get other people to love your characters or your plots will never, ever compare to the playfulness of creating them.

Twenty years in and I’m still trying to learn this lesson.

Telling the truth through writing can change you–and the world.

Books have taught me more than anything else. Through the hardest times of parenting and marriage, it’s the characters and stories in books who have shown me what works and what doesn’t. Reading is getting really good advice from authors who can deliver it with beautiful words and excellent life experience.

I write as a debt of honor for those authors. I write for those who were brave enough to tell the truth. I write because–through the process of telling the truth–I discover what I really believe.

And so, if you are a writer, keep at it. Tell the truth about everything, exactly how it happened and just how it feels. When you’re telling the truth, the miracle will begin. You’ll find that you’re writing what you didn’t even know you believed. This is the way you can discover what you actually do believe.

This is the power of reading and writing.

And it can change the world.

Or, at least, it can change your world.

This is why I write.

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