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Robert's Rules of Writing #56: Buy the Smoking Jacket

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

I love this rule, because Masello takes to task the oft-asked question, "Do you want to write...or do you just want to be a writer?"

Here's the background. Aspiring writers are often asked that question by more well-established writers, who know that the private life of a writer is different from that of the public perception. The point of the question is to remind the aspiring writer that real writers don't just sit back and receive admiration from the world around them. Nor do they sit around fantasizing about the accolades that will one day be theirs. Instead, they go back to their computers, day after day, filling their actual need to write. If you don't need to write, the question implies, then you're not a real writer. And to be a real writer, you shouldn't waste your time imagining your life as a success.

To which Masello says: hogwash.

(Well, not quite. But you get the idea.)

Masello points out, quite correctly in my opinion, that there's nothing wrong with imagining yourself as the writer you want to be. He notes that it can serve as a form of motivation. And I have to agree with him. Yes, I work at writing my stories. But I also dream about how those stories will be received by others, and how people will react favorably toward me when they've read something of mine that moved them.

In other words, I think all of us who write have, in some way, bought the smoking jacket. We're writers, after all, with (we hope) vivid imaginations. Surely we've imagined ourselves in a variety of successful scenarios and used those dreams to help us get started.

Another writer, Carolyn See, discusses this as well in her book Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. She talks about visualizing yourself as the kind of writer you want to be -- and then becoming that person once you've proven you can.

Let me take you through a small piece of my own personal journey for a moment, if you're willing to come along.

Years ago, when I was a teenager, I performed this visualization exercise myself. I wanted to be perceived as a writer. So I did something that, in retrospect, seems very silly. Before I ever graduated from high school, I ordered a box of business cards with my name, address, and phone number on it, and under my name I had them print one word: Writer.

Before I go on, I do have to point out that I had a legitimate claim to the title. Just prior to ordering those cards, I managed to sell two reviews of computer games to a now defunct magazine devoted to such things. So the fact is that I had indeed received payment for freelance writing, and therefore had no problem calling myself a writer.

Anyway, the story moves forward now to my college tenth reunion. By that point, I had published quite a bit more, including those science fiction stories that had been my goal all along. And when I encountered my freshman year roommate and we got to talking, he reminded me that I had spent my first week at college passing out those business cards to all my new acquaintances. Apparently, I told everyone and anyone I met that I was a writer (even though I was planning to become a scientist).

My roommate wasn't the only one who remembered me passing out those "Writer" cards. I myself had no memory of it, but I had no reason to disbelieve the reports, as it sounded just like the sort of thing I would have done at the time. But here's the payoff: even though at the time it was rather presumptuous of me to pass out those cards, fourteen years later some of my friends were impressed that I had actually achieved that goal. My desire to call myself a writer helped me become one.

So I have to recommend that visualization exercise to anyone who wants to become a writer. Sit back, relax, and close your eyes. Imagine yourself as the kind of writer you want to be. And then get up and write, but also do something else to start living that role, even if it's only in your own head for a while. Order the "Writer" business cards and keep them locked in your desk for the moment. Create a set of personalized stationery for yourself that calls you a writer. Or, as Masello recommends, buy that smoking jacket.

Once you've published a bit, you can begin to take on the public persona that you wanted to develop. For example, when I started to go to conventions, I chose to wear a blazer over a button-down shirt, but with no tie. Now, I know that ties tend to be mostly absent from science fiction conventions, but blazers also aren't as common as T-shirts. However, I decided that I was the kind of writer who wore a blazer, and so that's what I did. And sometimes, when the words flowed like molasses in winter (to use a cliche), keeping up a self-image of a successful writer was what kept me going at the keyboard.

So dream. It's what we writers do best.

Copyright © Michael Burstein


I like the blazer. :)

I try, in public things where I identify myself as a writer, to dress up a bit too. Maybe it's just making sure I've done my hair and make up with my jeans and wearing a nice shirt rather than a t-shirt... Wearing nice sandals and a pedicure rather than tennies. A skirt and heels rather than jeans when "working" the floor at a conference or convention... That kind of thing.

I don't know that it "matters" (certainly not much compared to writing skill...) but it makes me feel more confident. And I think /that/ matters. :)

I like this one!

Motivational/success strategies for every other career involve visualization and playing the part. I don't see why writing should be any different. It's not like we're going to delude ourselves that we don't still have to do all the work...
Interesting you should post this particular essay now. Here I am, a couple of weeks away from attending WorldCon. It's the first time ever that I've attended WorldCon without being on programming. That was a deliberate choice. I haven't been feeling like a writer the last month or two, mainly because writing has been really, really tough lately. And the more I do the visualization, do the "Writer Thing" (of which doing programming at WorldCon is a part), the more pressure I feel to perform and the tougher it gets to write.

So when I thought about going to WorldCon, I thought about my goals for the trip: Seeing friends. Relaxing. Having fun. And every time I thought about being on programming, suddenly the pressure was on and the idea of going to WorldCon began to feel stressful.

I have a couple of stories out on submission. I've been writing reviews for Talebones. I've published some poetry over the last couple of years. Yes, I'm a writer. I'm not the writer I hoped I'd be, but then I'm still trying to figure out what kind of writer I really am. I'm still trying to figure out if writing in the genre is the sort of writing I'm best suited for.

So, while I'm figuring this all out, I'm taking a little bit of a break. One usually doesn't dream of doing stressful, painful things. Lately, though, that's how writing in the genre has felt for me. So there's a part of Writer Me that's on hiatus. She's trying to figure out what kind of writer she really is. It may not be the sort of dreaming you're talking about. But it's something, anyway.
Taking a break is always in order.
Wow, that makes me feel a whole lot better...
You do realize that the entire point of my existence is to make you feel better? :-)

(OK, that's not necessarily true, but I'm glad this post helped you out.)
Definitely. I'm so glad I'm related to you!
Glad I'm not the only one. :)

The strange thing is that I've never envisioned myself, say, receiving awards, making speeches, that sort of thing. The closest I get to that is wondering what I'd say on panels and what kind of bio picture I'd have on my dustjackets.

Strangely enough, what I imagine is my setting--the successful writer who has the 300-acre spread in the mountains and what amounts to a library and museum surrounding him in his writing space. (This was the writing room Phil Farmer had, if not the spread in the mountains, and I fell in lasting love with that immediately!) The neat thing is that even though it doesn't have a lot of land and the house is rented, not owned, I soon will have a library / museum surrounding my writing space in a basement in a house by the woods. :)

The days I've had trouble writing, this is the surroundings I've envisioned myself in, which helps me relax, and then helps the words flow.
I sometimes dream of having the huge library in my home that I want. You know that library scene in Disney's Beauty and the Beast? That's what I envision.
>>But here's the payoff: even though at the time it was rather presumptuous of me to pass out those cards, fourteen years later some of my friends were impressed that I had actually achieved that goal. My desire to call myself a writer helped me become one.<<

This sounds kind of silly, I suppose, but it occurs to me that this was also motivation: everyone in high school / college / etc. knew I wanted to become a writer, so this adds some extra impetus to do it. That way when I run into someone I knew and they ask "So did you ever actually publish anything?", I can say "YES!"
It's been too many years, and probably just a false memory prompted by your story, but I seem to recall receiving one of those cards from you.

Now, of course, I have to try and find the correct box in the basement that might actually contain said card, to help validate the memory.
If you find the card, let me know. I don't think I have any more of them.
I know I certainly received one of those cards. No idea where it is now, of course. At the time, I found it amusing (but not unreasonable). Seeing as my college roommate somehow was able to diligently keep up a written jornal, calling himself a "writer" was not really a stretch. :-)

Oy. If you got one of those cards, then I must have been giving them out into sophomore year...

Hopefully I've matured since then. :-)

December 2016

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