I Can’t Write My Story Because I’m Not A Writer

 

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photo by Anton Vakulenko

Someone said this to me the other night at an event I attended for people who have consulting businesses. This guy is a consultant with a compelling personal story, and he’s been told numerous times that he should write a memoir.

Earlier in the evening, I told a group of people my own professional journey from one career as an executive in the cosmetics industry to a novelist and consultant and I noticed his rapt attention. I told them that when I wrote my first novel, I wasn’t a writer. And that I wasn’t even sure what I wrote was a novel. It was that statement that resonated with this guy.

“I can’t write my story because I’m not a writer,” he later said to me.

What is it about us writers? We need permission. We need somebody with writerly authority to tap the sword on both of our shoulders. We need a dog tag, a desk plaque or a tattoo that says we are a writer. If you think about it, this invisible, intangible, permission stops a bajillion people from writing. Or sadly, even publishing once they have something written.

I’ve got news for you: no writer ever became one without writing first.

Now get going! What are you waiting for? You could have written a really good sentence by now!

Often, hearing “you are a writer” is not convincing to some people. So, I tell these people not to think of this label because for some (all) it’s fraught with insecurity.

“Why not think of yourself as a storyteller, instead,” I said to this guy. I remember years ago (actually, this morning) doing this exact thing and it felt liberating. Storytellers don’t worry about grammar! Spelling! Punctuation! Perfect sentences! POV! Tense! They worry about the story. I knew I could do that much. I knew I could come up with (a.k.a. write—but don’t say it out loud, please) a good story. With characters and setting and tension and story arcs and twists and turns and a satisfyingly shocking ending.

“Can you tell a good story?” I asked this guy the non-writer. He nodded. I shrugged, “So tell it on paper.”

The thing is, no one can read an empty piece of white paper. And you will never be able to edit that empty piece of white paper. I know I have said that a million times so please forgive my repetition. But even the most horrendous first draft can be fixed. At least you’ll have something to work with—and that’s a heck of a lot more than nothing!

“Allow yourself to write an utterly horrendous first draft.” I told this guy. “How about going home tonight and writing a paragraph?”

He would not be persuaded just yet. “I can’t write the story because I have no idea where to start.”

Oh! So you’re gonna come at me with that, are you? This is the thing about letting the “where to start” question stop you from starting. There are seventeen zillion things in life that will be obstacles to your starting, sticking with and completing your book, don’t let something like where do I begin be one of them. I told him he shouldn’t think about where to start the story until he’s written at least 40,000 words. And I’m not kidding.

Just start. Anywhere. Start with the story you love to tell the most (if it’s a memoir). Or the most exciting part of your novel. There’s nothing like a little excitement to fuel the creative process, am I right? Who wants to start in the most difficult scene to write, or the one you have to think too much about? Nobody. It will take some time to find your voice, anyway, and the rhythm, and even the story itself. Decide about the “start” later. The most important thing about this stage is just writing. Get going! Give yourself a chance to fall in love with your story.

This is the last thing I’ll say about this. Nearly daily, I think about how I wish I had started writing earlier in life. If you’ve ever wanted to write, there’s no earlier than now.

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