Want to be a paperback writer

I’d been pondering recently that when I was young, my sole ambition was to be a writer. My fifth book is about to be published, I blog, I write course material, produce reports and publish papers. Writing is pretty much all I do, and yet I would never describe myself as a ‘writer’ if someone asked what I did.

Partly it’s because when I had in mind being a writer I dreamt of fiction, not ed tech books no-one reads. And also making my living from those books. But ambition is a peculiar beast, you get what you desire but don’t recognise it sometimes. I’ve managed to carve out a career which mainly revolves around writing, and yet ‘writer’ isn’t how I identify.

Then I read Kate Bowles piece today in which she reflects on the reasons she’s been finding writing difficult, and concludes that it’s because “I write too much of the wrong thing”, by which she means reports, proposals, updates – all of which “could fall into the sea tomorrow without loss”. I sympathise here – words are not a finite resource obviously, but our time is, and more significantly our intellectual focus to engage in writing. If you’ve spent all day writing bullshit words, then you’re used up for more writing, even if it’s writing good words. I suspect Kate may suffer from a higher quality threshold with her writing than most of us also, which makes it more difficult to just bang something out (witness my entire blog history).

I saw someone on twitter once comment something like “pretend you only have a handful of exclamation marks to use in your life, and allocate accordingly” (as an antidote to the fashion to add them to everything!). Thinking of writing similarly as a finite resource may not be a bad mental trick to deploy for yourself. Where are you going to use that allocation up today? Is that what you want to do?

This line of thinking also brought me back to some conversations we had on the back of Maha Bali’s post about whether we own our own domain, or merely rent it. Audrey Watters followed up on this, setting out how a domain of one’s own was about owning a space to write and think, “To own is to possess. To own is to have authority and control. To own is to acknowledge.” What Kate’s post reminds us is that a domain of one’s own is also about having your own space conceptually, and stylistically. As a writer that is essential.

In the days when I used to advocate for blogs unambiguously, I used to make the claim that they were a space where you retained much of the freedom to think and explore ideas which attracted you to academia in the first place. That claim is modified now by the more toxic aspects of online, but some such outlet is still required. It needn’t be public (some of the writing I enjoyed doing the most was when I kept a journal of being a father from when my daughter was 2 through to about 13, but I never wanted to share that), but there may be benefits in making it so. For one, it can make the need to allocate time to it easier or more valid – you are producing public outputs for all to see. And it helps shape the writing, and the connections – such as this one riffing off Kate’s post – make writing easier since you don’t have to do all the heavy lifting.

Maybe we’re pretty much all writers these days. If you described yourself as such, I wonder if we would treat that craft with more respect? Anyway, Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?

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