Essays on Technology and Culture

On Aspiration Versus Action

Until recently, I described myself online and in person as merely an “aspiring writer.” Oh, sure, I wrote–intermittently–but I applied the epithet “aspiring” to my title as I had yet to actually make it as a writer. After all, I hadn’t published a novel, sold a story 1, or landed a gig writing for pay in any form. Until something along those lines happened, I felt unfit to actually call myself a writer, no matter how much or how little I wrote. Dropping the qualifier has gone a long way to make sure I actually live up to the title I assign myself.

There’s an interview with Kevin Smith, of Clerks fame, that says much the same thing.

See, I had this little experience with my sister. She was like, “What do you want to be?” I want to be a filmmaker. She’s like “Be a filmmaker.” And I was like oh, yeah, right. And she was like “No. In your mind become a filmmaker. You’re a filmmaker from this day forward. Do everything as a filmmaker would do.”

And it’s true. It works.

It’s the commitment–and thus the accomplishment–that made him a filmmaker. If Clerks didn’t succeed, if Kevin Smith had made, say Birdemic, instead of a cultural touchstone for a generation, he could still call himself a filmmaker–he made a film, after all. I commit myself to writing, ergo I am a writer. No matter how good my work is, no matter how many or how few read my work, it’s still writing. If I do everything a writer does, I’ll be a writer.

Here’s the tricky bit. You can call yourself something while you’re doing it, but once you stop, you have to apply a new qualifier to your title: “former.” All the best writers, so they say, write every goddamn day. I can’t say that I do that currently, but it’s a good point to make. When you do a thing each day, when you finish, and move on to the next thing, you get better, and you get to keep that badge. I mean, for God’s sake, you don’t need permission to be awesome. Start, finish, and start again. It works this way in any sort of art or practice–and make no mistake, writing is a practice. It’s a practice that I am still getting the hang of actually practicing regularly, though.

Natalie Goldberg in her excellent book, Writing Down the Bones compares writing to the practice of Zen meditation. She does both, daily, come what may. I wish I had that level of dedication to the craft. Some days I am a writer, some days I am not. Fortunately, the days I am a writer are becoming more and more frequent. I’ve been trying my damnedest to find the time to write–and use it properly. It’s not just Natalie Goldberg saying this; every book on writing, every book on art and creativity, makes the same point over and over again: Work on your art every day.

I’m not trying to put down the idea of aspirations. Aspirations are fine things: they guide us and give us something to work toward–but, you do have to work toward them. No amount of The Secret type positive thinking/law of attraction/affirmation bullshit will make a finished manuscript fall into your lap. As the aphorism says, “Wish in one hand and shit in the other, and see which piles up first.” Now, I’m done with wishing. 2 If I want a finished manuscript in my lap, I’m going to have to write it. I am going to write it, because that’s what I do. I am a writer.

  1. Well, that’s a lie. I actually sold a short story–an unfinished one at that–to a long defunct online sci-fi and fantasy magazine. I made the princely sum of five American dollars for it, which means I’ve made more money writing than most writers do in a lifetime

  2. My sentiment is best expressed in a DEVO song lyric: “But wishin’ is for chumps / High hopin’ is for fools / They’ll hunt you down / (and taze you bro) / For playing with the rules”.