Today’s guest is Robin Antalek author of The Grown Ups (William Morrow, 2015) and The Summer We Fell Apart (Harper Collins, 2010) which was chosen as a Target Breakout Book. Robin’s non-fiction work has been published at The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown, and collected in the following anthologies: The Beautiful Anthology; Writing off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema; and The Weeklings: Revolution #1 Selected Essays 2012-1013. Her short fiction has appeared in Salon, 52 Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review and Literary Mama among others. She has twice been a finalist in Glimmertrain Magazine, as well as a finalist for The Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Doing the Work
I was walking the dog and a neighbor came rushing up to the fence that faced the sidewalk where my dog was sniffing a pile of dirt and leaves. Over the chain link he asked in rapid succession, “How did you get to be a writer? How did you get published? Do you need an MFA?”
His son had just completed an undergraduate English degree from a prestigious northeastern college and was presently living in his childhood bedroom sleeping way past noon and telling his confused parents that he couldn’t just go look for any job because he “wanted to be a writer.” But they hadn’t seen any evidence of writing happening. I think they had visions of their son watching Netflix until the sun came up and sleeping all day for the rest of their lives and it terrified them.
My fast answer is usually: “Butt in chair.” And I did say that—but I also asked him if his son just wanted to “be a writer” or did he really want to “write”? He shook his head. He didn’t understand the question.
Being a writer and writing are worlds apart. While fiction was my one true love, after college I took any job that would pay me. The writing gigs were few, but I didn’t turn anything down. I wrote ad copy, radio scripts, press releases and did a stint working for a business news network where I kept a massive tome of financial terms in my desk drawer. I didn’t have a clue about Wall Street but I learned to write thirty-second business briefs like I’d gone to Wharton. I wrote for pennies per word or for free just for experience and the byline. Nights and weekends were my time to write fiction and I trained myself to do just that. Butt in chair, whether I felt like it or not.
For me there was simply nothing else I ever wanted to do. Words always came easily. Was my first published novel my first written novel? No, that was a rip-off of Go Ask Alice, written when I was thirteen. At just under fifty pages it was light on plot, tension and character because I knew nothing about drugs other than what I’d read in Go Ask Alice.
Writers should be readers and I was diligent. I read constantly, outlined the novels I admired for pacing and structure, and supported literary journals and trade periodicals. All the while I continued to submit short stories where I amassed file folders of rejections. The “good” rejections were the personal notes—and I hung my fragile writing life on those words and before long was submitting directly to the people kind enough to write them. Little by little stories were accepted into journals, I got into a workshop on twenty-five pages of a novel in progress and I never, ever, stopped writing. Snails pace progress, but man, I worked for every micro movement forward.
Right there is the difference of wanting to “be a writer” and “writing.” Writers write. Some see success, some never do, but that also depends upon how you define success. Here’s the truth: a funny thing happened on my road to publication. I realized I was doing the work. Published or not. With effort my writing life shifted. I stopped coddling every word I put on the page and began to enjoy the process of cutting and shaping. Sure, I shelved three novels that I jokingly refer to as my own MFA program. But without those novels I might have never sold the fourth novel, my debut, and got an agent. Very soon, my second novel, actually my sixth, will be published. There was a novel between them that I worked on for two years and put away. If I had never stuck with it, I might never have known that this is the work of writing. I know that sentence makes it sound so simple. Believe me, it wasn’t.
William Carlos Williams said, “I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.”
So of anyone who wants to be a writer I would ask this: Do the words drive you? Are you compelled to write and do nothing else? Is there an ache to tell the story? Your story? Then do the work. Tell that story the best way you know how. Then tell it again and again and again until you are satisfied. Tell that story until the truth makes you squirm in your chair. When you are finished you won’t have to say you want to be a writer, you will already be one.
How do you define the difference between “writing” and “being a writer”? How do you “do the work”?