As the author of two dozen children’s books and four romance novels, I am often asked to speak in classrooms, libraries, and at writing conferences. I am still slightly disconcerted whenever I overhear a child whisper, “She doesn’t look like a writer, does she?”
And it’s not just children who have these odd, preconceived notions of authors. Adults are also guilty. More than once, when I’ve mentioned that my byline has appeared in a wide variety of magazines, such as Cosmopolitan, Mountain Living, Woman’s Day, and New Mexico Magazine, I’ve seen my inquisitor’s eyes glaze over with disinterest. He’ll shrug and say, “But real writers write books.”
I have written books, I counter. Dozens of them. Random House and Simon & Schuster have published many of them, I am quick to mention.
“Have any of them made the New York Times bestseller list?” I’m usually asked.
No, I admit, but Lewis & Clark: A Prairie Dog for the President and Tentacles! Tales of the Giant Squid have both sold more than 200,000 copies each.
“Oh, children’s books,” he says with a dismissive sneer.
I know, he’s thinking that writing for children isn’t real writing. That’s the problem that has hung over my head like Damocles’ sword for years. But I don’t worry about it anymore.
Instead, I recall an essay by William Zinsser entitled, “The Transaction.” It is a vivid comparison between Zinsser, who found writing lonely, difficult and laborious, and a surgeon-turned-bestselling author, who found writing to be glamorous, easy and lots of fun. At the end of the essay, Zinsser concludes that there’s not just one right way to write. There’s not just one right sort of writer, either, I know. We come in all literary shapes and sizes. Our differences are not as important as our common virtues.
Real writers write. Zinsser says they, “sit down and commit acts of literature.” Poems, articles, short stories, novels, nonfiction books–it doesn’t matter as long as we are actively pursuing the craft. An athlete is still an athlete whether she plays tennis or runs track or swims laps.
Real writers take the craft seriously. Being published or unpublished, earning a six-figure advance against royalties or a $1000 payment for a slice of life essay doesn’t make the writer’s obstacle course any easier. All of us battle the block, cope with rejection and strive for perfection, no matter how we measure up against the plumb line of commercial success.
Real writers take themselves seriously. Zinsser points out that two of the most important qualities a writer should strive for are warmth and humanity. If journal entries are alive with personality, if short stories or feature articles keep readers interested from one paragraph to the next, the writer is real.
“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions,” Mark Twain warned.“Small people always do that.”
With Twain’s words in mind, I’m determined not be threatened by others’ expectations. I will continue to perfect my craft, to risk vulnerability, to commit over and over again “acts of literature.”
We are real writers!