Irene Panke Hopkins

Freelance Writer & Editor

So You Wanna Be A Writer…

When a friend asked me to write a guest post for her website on the subject of forming a daily writing practice, including techniques I use to push through and overcome obstacles and just WRITE, I was stymied.

I felt like such a faker!

Because, you know, I am not one of those writers who live, breathe and eat writing. I don’t get up at 4 a.m. and write before the day gets rolling. I don’t have cool writing support websites at my fingertips. I don’t take every class I can find and I don’t belong to writing groups.

I just love to write.

I loved writing papers in college. I enjoyed—even looked forward to—writing letters before email and instant communication were de rigeur. I was giddy when asked to draft correspondence for my bosses in my early days of employment. But until relatively recently, I never considered writing as a career choice. What a concept! Making a living doing what you love to do!

I’ve always heard that if one wants to be a writer, one must write. Right? Right! Makes sense. It’s easier said than done and I have been all too aware of the challenges: finding time to write when one is working in a demanding job; lacking a dedicated writing space; fulfilling obligations to family, friends, parents and the general stuff of life. We would-be writers are busy, schedules are hectic and life has a way of keeping you from doing what you really want to do.

Hold on. Before you snap your neck shaking your head in agreement, I am here to say, “Those are terrible excuses!”

Although we are busy and life may have led us down a different path than the one we imagined, it is still within our power to pull out our machetes, whack through the brush and forge a new path for ourselves. It may take a while, and it may be something you can only chip away at a little bit at a time. But if you don’t start then it will quite simply not happen. Ever.

Even if you write for 20 minutes a day, that’s a start. It doesn’t matter when you do it as long as you schedule it and make it a priority. In a class addressing this very conundrum, the teacher instructed us, during the first week of the class, to schedule time on our calendars, EVERY DAY, and to write for any length of time we felt was manageable. The next week we were to stick to a daily word count. And the last week we committed to a minimum number of pages. My most important take away from that class was that although I truly believed that I had little to no spare time, I was wrong. I managed to schedule at least a half hour a day during which I told my family that I was not to be disturbed. It got me rolling. It set a priority for me and let my family know that this was time that mattered. To me. And it kept my writing organic, easy to return to.

Soon thereafter, an essay I wrote was accepted for publication in an anthology about raising teenagers (I Wanna Be Sedated: 30 Writers on Parenting Teens, Seal Press, 2005). Once the copyediting and rewrites began, nothing got in my way! I still went to work and met my obligations but I found that I had time for writing, even if other things were let go. For example, the house didn’t stay quite as clean and I left the laundry up to my husband and kids. It all got done. Well, most of it. But no one died and nothing drastic happened because I chose to write instead of finding excuses not to. I felt more alive than I had in a long time. I was doing what I really wanted to do, in addition to my other responsibilities.

We convince ourselves that we don’t have time. Why? Fear of failure? Lethargy? Impostor syndrome? Or ____________ (fill in the blank with whatever fits you).

During our book tour for the anthology, I received such positive response to my essay that I spent the next year working on a book that expanded my essay topic, learning how to write and craft a book proposal. I submitted the proposal, talked to people about it, tried my best to peddle it. No one bit. No one got it. And, although we have all heard the stories about people who were rejected until they felt like a limp rag on a dirty floor but then were suddenly propelled to national bestseller status with movie options and lecture requests…  I gave up and I returned to my old habits.

Then, a certain birthday propelled me towards a new approach. This was it. I was staring at my life clock and it was definitely afternoon. I knew with startling certainty that my time was growing shorter. So I made a decision. I was going to try. That’s all. Just try. Because if I didn’t try, I’d never know. Rejection didn’t scare me anymore. Failure was not such a big deal as it once was.

I set a goal for myself. In one year I wanted to be writing regularly with some nice gigs to fill my time outside of my day job. Cutting that time in half, I planned in six months to have made a number of contacts, taken a class, established my path. Then, slicing the time in half again, I thought about my three-month goal. I would have submitted something—or even better, three things—once a month. Then in half again. Until I got to this week, tomorrow, today. And I promised myself that I’d do this for one year, revising my goals as needed.

My first submission was an essay that I had written a long time ago having to do with the onset of fall and the new beginning many feel in the crisp air no matter how long we have been out of school. It was late summer when I set this goal. I needed to revise it to be more current and find someplace that didn’t need six months lead-time. But where?

Just when I was pondering this, I was invited to a small gathering with three writer-editor-publisher friends who were involved with the anthology. I decided to swallow my pride and ask for their help and suggestions. But during the evening I lost my nerve. I didn’t want to change the subject. I didn’t want to expose my amateurishness. I had butterflies. I was perspiring. This was my promise to myself and I was about to let myself down. I tried to convince myself that I didn’t really have to do this. But just as everyone was heading to the door, I blurted out, “Wait! I need to ask you where I can submit this really great essay I just wrote.”

The soundtrack screeched to a halt. The three of them stared at me, surprised and puzzled. They mumbled something about letting me know later. I cursed myself all the way home. “What an idiot I am!” But, a couple of days later all three of them gave me suggestions. I followed up on one, submitting my essay to a small, local paper. It was accepted and I was asked, repeatedly, for more. I got up my nerve again and proposed that I write a regular column. And I have been writing for the Queen Anne/Magnolia News as a regular columnist ever since, building an audience and keeping my writing practice alive. Some of my essays have been picked up by other publications.

After leaving my job of 25 years (not by choice—that’s another story altogether, one of “mean girl” co-workers and work politics), I floundered for a while. But then, I realized that my time excuses were no longer valid. And I am now devoting myself full-time to writing. And I thank the great spirit guide for landing me here. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still difficult to focus. I still manage to let things get in the way. But when I have a job to do, I do it. Even if it doesn’t pay a lot. Even if it pays nothing. If it’s writing related, it’s my priority.

Recently I entered and won first prize in a contest for Real Simple magazine. My essay, Home Waters, was published in the April 2017 issue and my inbox has been flooded with responses.

You can do this. You really can. It’s within your power.

Aim high, but start small. Set a goal, go after it in realistic increments, congratulate yourself every day for an accomplishment no matter how minor. Even if you don’t reach a point where you can quit your day job at least you will be doing the thing you love in your spare time. You may not get rich from it, but you will certainly be happier.

I know I am.

 

 

 

7 Comments

  1. I loved your essay in Real Simple! In reading through this blog post, I found myself acknowledging many of the same feelings and thoughts you describe. In fact, I promised myself I would submit my story to the same magazine contest–but I didn’t, for various reasons. Your words have provided fresh inspiration for me to share my own life-changing experience, in some version or another, and I thank you for that!

    • Dear Brittany,

      Thank you for reading my essay in Real Simple and then visiting my website. I’m glad to have provided some inspiration to you! I think it’s important that we support one another as writers and creatives. Let me know if you enter the next Real Simple essay contest. You can start working on the essay now and have it ready for submission by the deadline. Go for it! Good luck with your writing wherever it takes you.

      Best wishes,

      Irene

  2. Lauren Cullop

    April 9, 2017 at 5:31 am

    Irene,

    I just read your Real Simple essay, too, and loved it. Congratulations! I did enter the contest and preparing my submission was a huge learning experience. I thought it would be easier to write personal nonfiction – after all, the material is already there! But phew, was it hard to sit and sort out.

    I appreciate this blog post, too – it’s a great moment for me to read something re-inspiring. Thanks for putting your words out here…

  3. franceonisland

    July 11, 2017 at 2:51 pm

    Thank you! Your words really encouraged me this morning. Onward and upward.

  4. Thanks for letting me know! That is the idea! Encourage and support. Keep up the good work!

    ~ Irene

  5. Thank you, that was motivating! I found your blog from your article in Real Simple. The article is now bookmarked and available from the laundry room/library at Ballard Mill Marina so the other liveaboards can enjoy it.

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