I’m A Writer

Yesterday, I was at a birthday party when a woman I had just met asked the inevitable question, “And what do you do?”  Without giving the matter a second’s thought, I simply answered, “I’m a writer.”  Now I’ve been asked that question more times than I can count, but that was the first time I ever answered it with those particular words.

Yes, I’ve been writing my whole life, or at least from the age that I could first pick up a pencil and carefully write down the words to a story.  But we live in a society that defines us by what we do for a living, and I have never earned a living through my writing.  Writing has always been something I did on the side, either while working at the rather tedious jobs I held when I worked full-time, or when I was a stay-at-home mom with my two children.  Sure, I sold some articles and even had a very short book published by an educational publisher, but a writing career was always a dream I pursued and never the reality I actually lived.

Which is why I was very surprised by the way I answered the question at the party.  The four children’s book manuscripts I have written are still sitting, unpublished, in my files.  My name is not, sadly, on the New York Times best-sellers list.  If you went to any library in the country and tried to find a book by Ann Coleman, you would fail to do so. (Unless there is another person by the same name out there who has had more publishing success than I have.  If there is, please don’t tell me, because I might be tempted to claim credit for her work when I’m having a bad day.)  Yes, I am now writing this blog, but it’s been going for eighteen months and I have only recently the 400-followers mark.  Advertisers are not exactly pounding on my door, wanting a piece of the action.

I think all that has changed is the way I have learned to think about myself.  When I was younger, I secretly defined myself as a writer, but believed that I had no right to publicly claim that title until I had appropriate validation from the publishing world.  I desperately wanted to sell books to a major publisher, not so much to see my work in print, but to feel as if I had finally earned permission to call myself a writer.  “Of course I’m an author,” I would be able to say, pointing casually at the shelf full of my published books as proof.

But now I realize that whether or not I can earn a living through my stories and essays isn’t what makes me a writer.  I have come to believe that if someone writes regularly (I do) and puts his or her writing out for others to read (I do), and works hard at  improving his or her writing skills (I do), then that person is, indeed, a writer.

Some of us are blessed to be able to earn a living doing what we love most, and that’s truly a wonderful thing.  But the rest of us don’t have to let ourselves be defined by how we pay our bills.  If we are doing what we love to do, whether it’s writing, gardening, painting, woodworking, or whatever, then I believe we have the right to define ourselves by our passion.  And we shouldn’t hesitate to share that definition with others when we are asked, as we always will be, “And what do you do?”

A Firm Foundation

DSC01527When I first started this blog, I had no real idea what blogging was all about.  I just knew that I wanted the chance to write about coping with the stage of life that we call middle age, and I wanted to do it in a format that allowed me the freedom to write exactly what I wanted to write, when I wanted to write it.  I was tired of the assigned subjects and deadlines that came with freelance writing, and I was especially tired of having so many of my fiction manuscripts returned to me with a rejection letter attached.  Blogging seemed to be a perfect way to write without having to deal with other people’s expectations, and I thought I had found a perfect creative outlet.

I told myself at the beginning that I wasn’t going to care if my blog was particularly successful or not, because I wasn’t planning to try to make money from it, and I thought that making money was only real reason to try to attract huge numbers of readers.  Honestly, I knew there was a very real chance that I would have exactly six readers:  my husband, my two kids, my mother, and the two good friends who encouraged me to start this blog in the first place.  (Thank you, Jacque and Jeanie!)

But then I started publishing my posts, and I soon learned that it was actually very nice to see the number of “visitors” and “views” on my blog stats page grow beyond the six person mark.  I was thrilled when perfect strangers took the time to write a nice comment after a post, and touched when old friends reached out to tell me how much they identified with what I wrote.  I was surprised at how easy it was to make friends with other bloggers.  It wasn’t long before I found that I was beginning to care very much about how many people were reading my blog, and I began to pay attention to all those guides out there on “how to increase your blog’s audience.”

And that’s where the whole thing began to get complicated.  Wordpress is designed to make it easy for me to keep track of which of my blog posts are the most popular, and even when I ought to post them.  (I have the highest numbers on Sunday, at 5:00.)  Not surprisingly, my posts that had the broadest appeal also had the highest number of readers, and I found that including some photos also helped.  But the problem was, the more I became focused on raising my number of readers, the less I enjoyed actually writing the blog.

Self-awareness comes slowly to me, so it took me quite a while to figure out that the problem was I had wandered too far from my original purpose in writing this blog.  I had started out wanting to share my experiences of coping with middle age mostly with friends and family, and anyone else who happened to relate to what I had to say.  I had wanted to write without worrying about other people’s expectations, but instead, I had begun to focus on how “successful” a particular post would be.  When I got an idea for a blog post, I would immediately wonder whether that idea would be popular.  Then, if a post did very well, I just worried that my next post would not be as good.  And if a post didn’t do well, I felt as if I had, in some important but obscure way, failed.   Worrying about my numbers was sucking the joy right out of blogging.

So, it’s time for me to get back to the basics.  I want to enjoy writing this blog, and I want to write it for the people who actually enjoy reading it.  And while there may be times when I’d like to be able to say that number is in the thousands, the truth is that I have only 144 followers.  Like all writers, I do want people to read what I am writing.  But I also want my writing to be meaningful, honest, and always the best that I can produce.  Because that is my own, personal, definition of success.

When The Words Won’t Come

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but there are times when I just hate blogging.  Now don’t get me wrong, I usually love working on my blog.  I get to write down my thoughts and ideas, figure out a way to post a relevant photo or two, edit the post, edit it again, and finally, hit that magic “publish” button.  After that, I can count on a few kind souls to hit the “like” button and maybe also leave an encouraging comment on either my Facebook page or the blog page.  It’s great feeling to know that someone has actually read and appreciated what I’ve written, and trust me, that kind of validation doesn’t come often from traditional publishing venues.

The problem is my self-imposed schedule of publishing a new post every fourth day.  I know this doesn’t matter to anyone else, but when I started blogging I knew I had to have some sort of schedule to keep me on track  (I learned this from years of free-lance writing from home.  A writer who doesn’t have a strict writing schedule is often a writer who isn’t writing much.)  Usually my schedule works just fine, and I only miss when I’m sick or the fourth day falls on a holiday, as it did yesterday.  But sometimes the fourth day dawns and I realize I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to write about this time.  It’s not long before I begin to panic, thinking that I have, finally, completely run out of ideas and that I will never, ever write anything that anyone else could possibly want to read again.  I begin to believe that I simply don’t have what it takes to keep a blog going for the long term.

IMG_0383What I have learned to do when that panic hits is to sit my ample butt down at the computer, pull up a blank Word document and begin writing anyway.  It takes a while, with lots of false starts, plenty of deletions and lots of time spent staring at the computer screen, trying to hone in on a single idea that can be developed into a respectable blog post.  It’s hard, but I have found that if I keep trying, eventually I begin to understand what what I want to write and how I should write it, and I realize that maybe I can do this after all.  After a bit more work, I usually come up with a post I am satisfied with, and my former feelings of despair and failure are replaced with a small sense of accomplishment.

When I was young, I assumed that all successful writers had tons of great ideas whirling around in their heads, and all they had to do was sit down and write them out.  Now I suspect that success at writing isn’t so different from success in most other areas in life:  the willingness to work hard, day after day, even when you honestly believe you don’t have what it takes to get through the task in front of you.  It’s turning a deaf ear to that inner voice that tells you that you can’t do this.  It’s slowly learning to believe in yourself, even when it seems as if no one else does.

There are lots of reasons why I am glad I started this blog, from reconnecting with old friends, to finding the encouragement and support of the on-line blogging community, to simply rediscovering the joy of writing when everything finally comes together the  way I want it to.  But for me, (someone who has always been a bit too quick to quit when the going got tough)  the biggest reward has been seeing just how important it is not to give up, to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and to realize just how much I can accomplish as long as I am willing to keep on trying.