Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
I was told once that the desire to become a writer was tantamount to volunteering for torture. I laughed at the time, but as I’ve learned since, there’s enough truth in those words to sting a little.
For most people, when the concept of being a writer is brought up think of books. But there’s so much more. A person can write ad copy, tech manuals, short articles, essays, columns, blog copy, longer feature articles, short stories, yada, yada, yada… So there’s no shortage of slots out there for the aspiring among us.
I write short essays, in the 500 to 1000-word range. While I have only two magazine articles to my credit, I did recently score my 65th newspaper column. (Why am I celebrating number 65? Because I was oblivious to the passage of number 50.) I do have three book projects I’m working on, but I find the most fulfillment in short pieces. Those who have read my columns have responded very positively, which is always balm to a writer’s ego. Unfortunately, the attempts to broaden my market have met with, shall we say, somewhat less than spectacular success.
Intellectually, I understand that the market is brutally competitive. Features editors are swamped with candidate essays, not only from local writers, but people like me who communicate via e-mail. An editor’s first responsibility and focus must be the local market. Add to that the conclusion that columns are probably the least-read parts of any newspaper, and you see the problem. But I continue to strive mightily, hoping for that one breakthrough piece of literary brilliance that gets people’s attention.
Another problem is probably the subjects I choose. The media establishment is overflowing with political writers at the moment, most of whom understand that controversy sells, and an angry reader is a responsive reader. Because what they write is essentially an opinion piece instead of straight news, the standards for truth are a bit looser. The goal of these folks seems to be nothing more than deliberate anger-baiting.
While my degree is in Political Science, I never had much enthusiasm for that kind of delivery. I have discovered a great deal of inspiration writing about those life-driven things that are common among most people. My goal, therefore, is not a reader who leaps out of their chair with distorted face and raging voice, but the one who, after finishing, leans back, smiles softly and sighs, “Yeah…” By tapping those memories, I reach for those things we all find in common; that which unites us, rather than what divides us.
Unfortunately, the market for such gently benevolent writing is apparently pretty thin. But, I must be honest with myself and endure the painful idea that it’s not so much the selection of topic, but maybe the quality of what I produce.
I think every writer has the burden associated with the demon of ego. We all, deep inside, consider ourselves the second coming of Earnest Hemingway or Margaret Mitchell. Some might term that a form of delusion, but I think it’s the necessary foundation of courage and confidence that keeps us laboring mightily at the keyboard and enduring the institutional filleting we receive from editors and agents. And that’s the key, that willingness to swallow disappointment and keep on trying. Somewhere out there, we’re convinced that we will encounter the perfect intersection of inspiration, necessitation, and editorial desperation that will result in finding our labor of love on a rack front and center in Barnes & Noble’s across the nation.
The hardest thing to endure is our emotional attachment to what we write. Mostly, I write from the heart. The words you read spring from deep within me. It is very much a labor of love, and in a way, words become a sort of surrogate child. And my first instinct is to defend it vigorously from any kind of negative assault. However as young parents eventually learn, you can't protect your progeny from all the negativity in the world. In fact, it's not right to do so. We learn so much from our mistakes. We gain wisdom from battling adversity. We become tougher; more resolute. This environment makes us better people because we learn how to stand tall for what we believe, and learn to take responsibility for our errors.
The trek towards becoming a true professional writer is fraught with rejection, disappointment, and painful self re-evaluation. But for some, at the end of that rough, uphill climb, is the mountaintop of success.
And that road is the fine line that we walk between delusion and the pursuit of a dream.