I’ve been asked how I knew I was called to be a writer. For me, calling is fairly easy to recognize. If the thought of doing something fills you with equal parts joy and terror, it’s probably a calling.
There’s more to it than that, I suppose, since the idea of buying a new Tesla sports car fills me with both feelings too, mostly because my wife, Amy, would kill me. There are other elements, like the conviction that our calling should feel something of an identifiable need in the world, and that it should call on gifts we have in a way that is life-giving not just to others, but joyful and life-affirming for us as well.
But the joy and terror thing is a pretty good sign you’re on the right track.
I’ve loved writing for most of my life. I’ve written books, one-act plays, short stories, and articles since I figured out there were such things. I used to create little community newspapers on my mom’s typewriter, back well before anyone had word processors or computers around. I compiled booklets of poetry and even created my own hardback book in second grace out of binder rings, some cardboard and some scraps of leftover fabric. My trajectory as a writer took a few awkward turns, most of which involved people telling me why I could or should not be one.
I scored 140 points higher on the math section of my SATs than on the verbal section. It would be a real waste to throw away such potential for mathematics and the sciences.
I kept writing anyway.
Writing for pleasure is all well and good, but do you know how many English and Literature majors there are in college? A degree like that is hardly worth the money, time and effort.
I still kept writing.
What kind of writing, exactly, do you see yourself doing that will actually allow you to live comfortably? Do you know what the odds are of being a bestselling author? Or do you plan to work for a newspaper or a magazine? One of those dying media? Or maybe you’ll just start a blog and hope it goes viral and someone pays you to be famous?
I kept on writing.
My first real gig finally came in my 20s, when an LGBT community paper requested submissions from a restaurant reviewer. I was neither gay nor any kind of expert in the culinary arts, but I was motivated, professional and I worked for free. From there, I got a couple of opportunities to write short blurbs, and then columns for the Fort Worth Business Press. I had no business background at all, but I said “yes” to anything they asked me to do, and again, I did it for nothing. Hard to turn down an employee like that.
But I did get turned down. A lot. I got rejected by a music trade magazine in Austin when I tried to write 100-word music reviews for them. I got turned down by the college newspaper where I went to school. I sent submissions to more than 200 magazines, publishers, and literary agents after graduating college. Most of the time, I never even heard back from them. I spent hundreds of dollars on fine paper, photocopies, professional folders, envelopes, and postage, which was a lot for a guy waiting tables at TGI Friday’s. And from those who bothered to respond at all, I got little more than a sentence or two, each finding a more diplomatic way to reject my work.
So after roughly six years of concerted effort – never mind the decades of writing alone in my room – all I had to show for it was a couple of scraps from a local business rag, some review in an LGBT community newsletter and a negative balance in my checking account. Only an idiot would call that success.
But I kept writing.
I struck up a relationship with the Lifestyle editor at the only paper in town in Pueblo, Colo., where Amy and I moved to start a church. His name was Marv, and he was a former Catholic priest-turned-journalist. He was the most prototypical newsman I’d ever met, which wasn’t saying particularly much. But it was in getting to know him that I came to realize how important relationships were in the writing world. Every editor and agent in the world sat behind a desk overflowing with submissions to the “slush pile,” where all of the unsolicited material they got sent was put. If you ever were going to have a chance to do anything for these folks, you had to find your way out of the slush pile.
I got to know Marv, and he took me on as the backup event reviewer. He had a team of about four people who had been doing his theatrical and musical reviews for years, but there were times when one of them had something come up and no one else could cover for them. Every single time he called me with an opportunity, I said yes. I didn’t care if it meant going to see a high school interpretation of “Annie” or if I had to drive an hour or more to get there. I’d say that I’d do it before I even knew what I’d be writing about.
Why? Because I couldn’t not write. I cared less about what I was writing about than I did about writing, period. Had they asked me to, I probably would have paid them to let me write back then. Hell, even today, nearly two decades later, most of my writing is for little or no money.
Is this insane? Willfully stupid? Maybe. But it’s what I do. It’s who I am. Only God knows why.