If you are interested in telling stories I want you to do something for me. I want you to protect that desire from your friends, your family, your peers, your online acquaintances, the literati, the critics, the publishing world and, most importantly, you.
If you decide at some point that storytelling no longer interests you that’s fine. What’s not fine is to think there’s some metric by which you must measure success. And the last possible metric you should measure success by is money.
I’ve been paid for my storytelling skills more than once. I have been and am a professional writer. But the storytelling I’ve done that has made money is only part of my storytelling life. The epicenter of that life, the core of my storytelling drive, is the mystery and promise of the blank page. It has been that way since I was a child, and I have protected that core from every assault waged against it.
I have not, however, always put storytelling first. For much of my adult life I put relationships ahead of my desire to tell stories, and I have no regrets about that. To do anything else would have been unthinkable to me. If life is short, and it is, then it’s for damn sure too short to be spent satisfying an itch while the people you love go wanting.
There were of course times when I was frustrated. And there were times when I could have written but I wasn’t supported in doing so. But even during the worst of it I didn’t feel as if I had to make a final decision one way or the other. I didn’t have to choose precisely because I never intended to let storytelling go. What I want you know is that you don’t have to choose either.
If you want to write novels, write them. If you have the time now, write now. If you’ll have the time in twenty years, write them in twenty years, and write short stories or sketches now.
The one thing you must not do is blame others for the fact that you’re not writing. No child, no spouse, no family member wants to think that they’re an obstacle to your happiness. If you really, really want to write, and you really, really feel your kids or spouse or family are an obstacle to your happiness, then you need to have a serious conversation with yourself about your priorities, if not your narcissism. But you don’t have to give up on writing.
Regular readers know I tend to think things through, often to a maddening degree. Back when I was young — by which I mean junior high school — I remember thinking about being a storyteller, and about the advantages of pursuing that course. Not only would I be able to do it across the great breadth of my life, as long as my mind held out, but nobody could force me to retire if I didn’t want to. Likewise, I wouldn’t be prevented from writing by a faltering back or bad knees, like so many blue-collar tradespeople were despite the wealth of knowledge they retained.
What I didn’t know then, but learned in college from personal experience, study and observation, is that the ability to write often shows up long before most authors have anything interesting to say. In order to write about life it helps to have lived a life.
Now, if you’re a storyteller in your heart you may have just felt a bolt of lightning hit your chest. That’s because there are three great, inherent, connected advantages to treating storytelling as a continuous life journey. First, there’s the fact that you can always get better and improve your craft over time. Second, for as long as you live new stories will be popping into your head whether you’re writing or not. Third, as you get older you’re going to have more and more awareness of what’s real, what matters most, and how global aspects of the human condition relate to individual acts — which is another way of saying that plot and character will become more than blanks to fill.
To put this all another way, anyone who decides they’re going to give storytelling a shot when they’re young, only to bag it if success and fame don’t come rolling in, is not only kidding themselves, they’re missing out on every last fruit of their early labor. In your storytelling life, the only fatal mistake you can make is to think you must be successful now. And it doesn’t matter when now is, because what you should always be doing now is telling stories.
Here’s something I said in reply to a comment on the previous post:
Being a ‘writer for life’ should be a valid choice, like being a gardener or pet owner.
If you want to build an author platform on the web, go for it. But do that in order to connect with readers. Don’t do it in order to connect with agents or publishers or any of the old-school apparatus that will only care about you if what you’re doing now is something they can make money off of now. Not only are most of those people wrong more than they’re right, giving your writing life over to them is the second-fastest way to destroy the desire that brought you to storytelling in the first place.
The fastest way is to quit on yourself.
For what it’s worth, I’m prompted to say this to you because three days ago I solved a point-of-view problem I’ve been working on for twenty years. No, that’s not a joke. I’ve had a story in mind for more than two decades (a screenplay, actually) but I couldn’t figure out the proper point of view. It’s a radical solution, but it’s also something I wouldn’t have thought of when I was younger.
Twenty years, then three days ago it came to me. Because I didn’t quit.
— Mark Barrett