I’ve known I wanted to tell stories since I was six. I didn’t realize that meant writing, but I knew stories were the thing that made up my core. I would send my Barbie dolls through epic Amazonian adventures, I would stay up hours after being sent to bed telling myself stories, I would go on crazy adventures in my backyard with my invisible companions (companions, not friends, because the cast was constantly changing). And when I started to take language arts and literature classes, writing beckoned me temptingly as I hurried through my grammar and spelling lessons. You too can probably attest to the fact that story-telling, painting, creating, or music is in your blood (sweat and tears).
I recently went to a writer’s conference and was again struck by the fact that there are many people out there who are — or want to be — writing. And the feeling that you are all on the same page (no pun intended) is wonderful. But then you leave those creative enclaves and enter the real world again. And while there are still wonderful and supportive people out there, there are always those slap-in-the-face moments that leave you feeling just a bit off balance. I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked me what I do for work, I reply “I’m a writer,” then they smile and say:
A) “Oh that’s nice, I’m going to write a book someday. I’ve always wanted to write a book. It would be about (insert plot variation of grandmother surviving World War 2). I’ll get to it when I have the time.”
B) “What else do you do? I mean for money?”
C) “Oh.” And then they proceed to look at me like some weird abstract painting they are trying to understand. Their nose wrinkled up, their eyes squinting, and finally just changing the subject.
Now I’m not telling you this to make fun of the people who reply in the above ways. I’m telling you this because we’re human. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of topics that someone could bring up where I would say something just as ridiculous. Never realizing how I made my fellow conversationalist feel, or driving home after the conversation kicking myself for my response. “Really, Petra? Really? Why do I often ask store clerks at cool stores if they have a hard time not spending their money on their own wares?” I’ve worked at retail stores. When I’m bringing home minimum wage it’s pretty damn easy not to spend those nine dollars on that ‘seen it seven times before’ t-shirt. But the clerks will invariably respond that yes, it is hard to not spend their paycheck. Because they are being polite. And that is what I do when someone says something silly about my writing profession. Because being polite is still a good thing. Even if there are a million reality shows arguing the opposite.
So if I’m not writing to complain about those people who doubt our jobs, say silly things about them, or say something that triggers our own feelings of inadequacy, then what am I getting at? I’m simply trying to remind myself, and you, the artists/authors/creators that we are, that what we do on a daily basis is amazing. Yes, most people in North America want to write a book someday, and I hope they get to feel the joy of that accomplishment, but you and I, we are doing it right now. I’ve published a book. Maybe you have, too. Or you’re on your way to doing so. And that, my friends, is an amazing thing. We’re no longer dreaming, we’re doing. We are making the time. And bravo to us, because sometimes, that’s the hardest part.
Secondly, when I get asked if writing is all I do, I feel the same way I used to feel when people asked my mom if all she did was be a stay-at-home-mom. All? While I’ve never had kids, and I’m not comparing the two in a real point to point way, the same theory applies. If someone hasn’t done it, they don’t know what it takes. Remember that. I remind myself of this constantly. It’s not their fault. They haven’t tried it. But us, we’re in the trenches, pounding out the words, ripping through the edits, and searching for the real story. We’re feeling out the canvas, searching for the jewelry in the metal, picking out the tune of a heart-wrenching song. It’s a pretty amazing thing that we’re doing. Yes, we may have other money-making, sometimes soul-crushing jobs, but art, creating, it’s everything to us. So either way, it’s all we’re doing.
And lastly, those moments when you feel like the abstract painting someone hates or doesn’t get, just nod, smile, and think about how much people will be fighting over the idea of you, your work, and your life in some class fifty years from now, just like we do the abstract paintings that sell for millions. The best thing about those paintings is that not everyone gets them. It’s what makes them special. And we as artists are a very special bunch. I honestly wouldn’t want it to be any different.