While I was working on a recent column for BleedingCool.com, I went to a comic book store to look at some comics and ask the staff about what books were popular with kids at the store. After some browsing, I waited for the clerk behind the register to have a free moment and I introduced myself to him. “Hi, my name is Erik,” I told him and offered my hand to shake. “I write a column for Bleeding Cool.” The clerk was immediately skeptical. “What are your credentials?” he asked me. I was a little surprised by his tone but I told him that I’d been reading comics since I was 9 years old and after some more small talk he was more willing to listen to my questions. The interaction ended up being pretty unpleasant from start to finish and not really useful for the column (I’ve since switched stores) but that question stuck with me: what are your credentials? I realize that while the phrasing might not match precisely, that same question is one I’ve asked myself over and over again since I started seriously trying to write fiction in Mrs. Abromitas’s 4th grade classroom. It’s a question that haunts me when I think about starting something new or talking to people about my work or when I think about blogging about writing here. It’s a question that haunts most writers from time to time and it seems like as good a place as any for me to start writing about writing.
Before I get to the question of credentials, I’m going to begin at an even more basic place: what makes a writer a writer? Unlike the visual arts or music, writing is a necessary part of just about everyone’s daily life. We write emails or grocery lists or Facebook statuses or tweets. Most people probably write a couple hundred words every day just as a matter of course but they probably don’t also get out palette knives or sheet music. In that way, writing is a lot like cooking. There are a lot of cooks but there are a lot fewer chefs. So where is that dividing line? What separates a writer from someone who simply writes? I think the answer to that is the same answer you get when you ask someone how to get to Carnegie Hall. You become a writer by writing. Writing is a discipline and it’s a practice but more than any of that it’s a conscious act. The difference between someone that writes and a writer has everything to do with intention and commitment.
I’m a writer because I choose to be. I’m a writer because I write, frequently and critically. For every page that ends up in a final draft, I write 10 more than never get that far. I write and I rewrite and I rewrite again then I start over on something new. I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years. I finished my first full length manuscript 13 years ago. I’ve written 6 more since. I’ve written more short stories than I can count, many of them lost to hard drive crashes or simply forgotten about. I’ve written poetry and plays. I wrote a screenplay when I was 18. I’ve written comic book scripts and columns and hundreds of essays. I worked on literary magazines and websites and studied the craft of writing and the great works of the English language in college. I’ve read a lot of books; more than most, fewer than many. That experience doesn’t make me a great writer but it makes me a stubborn and determined one and still none of that represents my “credentials” or grants me any more legitimacy than anyone else.
As a writer, I make things up. That comes with the territory. I write as truthfully and as honestly as I can. I put everything into my stories and characters to make them real but ultimately they’re not. No matter how close you hew to personal experience, you need more to tell a story. Even memoirists and autobiographers make things up. They put meaning and a connective tissue into past events that didn’t exist in the historical moment. There’s an audacity to approximating reality and using it to make fiction that still feels real. You’re writing characters that usually aren’t yourself, frequently doing things that you’ve never done. You do your research, sure, but in the final draft there’s a lot of educated guessing. With that audacity comes a creeping doubt, either from inside yourself or from others. What are your credentials? Why do you get to tell this story? What makes your educated guesses worth reading about? If you let yourself get trapped by those questions, you’ll find your way out.
I had a friend tell me once that he could write a novel if he worked on it long enough. He’s absolutely right. If you put in the time (which will probably be a lot more time than you expect) and you see it through, anyone can write a novel or a short story or a column for a comic book website. I’m not a smarter or better person than my friend but he still hasn’t written that novel. The novels I’ve written, half of them aren’t publishable, let alone readable, but one or two of those books are good and the next ones will be better. Maybe 8 out of 10 of my ideas won’t bear fruit. I’ll still develop all 10 so I can get the 2 that are.
The big difference between my friend and I is the same thing that gives me “credentials;” I’m doing it. I’m making the time to write. I’m making it a priority and I’m seeing it through. The real answer to the comic book store clerk is that my credentials are that I had an idea and then I found a website and then I contacted the website and I pitched the idea and then I did it. My credentials are that I went to a comic book store and I said, “hi, my name is Erik” and I put my hand out and when that clerk doubted my authority to do it, I kept doing it anyway. Ultimately, writing is the easiest part about being a writer. Finishing something despite your doubts or anyone else’s doubt, sharing something, putting it out into the world for rejection or acceptance, those are the real feats and if you do that, those are all the credentials you’ll ever need.
So, what are my credentials to write about writing here? I’m doing it.