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On Making It as a Writer

Posted: 08/17/2012 5:00 pm

I always knew I wanted to be a writer. As a girl, I wrote what I felt sure were gripping tales of witches, illustrating them in crayon (the green ones went fast) and then stapling the pages together into books. I spent long, happy hours clacking away on a portable typewriter, typing out passages by authors I loved as well as my own stories. In high school and college, I tried my hand at journalism, writing for the school newspapers, and also took creative writing classes. By the time I graduated from college, I'd settled on what kind of writer I wanted to be: a fiction writer.

But how, exactly, to do this? And how to survive while trying?

I'd majored in Comparative Literature, which I'd loved, but as far as I knew no one -- except possibly the CIA -- was recruiting Comp Lit majors (for Comp Lit you had to speak two languages in addition to your own). I had no interest in going to law school, a popular option for people who'd majored in subjects that didn't offer any apparent prospects of a remunerative career, so instead I ran away to set off for Darjeeling to stay with my Tibetan grandmother and work on a family history.

A storybook town nestled in the Himalayas, Darjeeling was idyllic but after about four months, I got restless and bought a ticket to Tokyo. Travelers passing through had told me that Japan was really interesting and, since it was the time of the Bubble economy, high-paying English-teaching jobs were easy to come by. I didn't know anything about Japan but an idea --admittedly a tad vague -- took form: I'd spend a few months working in Tokyo and then use the money to maybe go to Paris, get a job, and try to make my dream of being a writer come true.

But the universe had other plans for me. I fell in love with Japan and, three weeks after I arrived, met the man I would marry. I've now been in Tokyo over 20 years.

Living in Japan has taught me some things about how to make it as a writer. One of the most important is to take the time to learn your craft; to focus not on being successful but on becoming the best swordsmith, sushi chef, potter, weaver, or writer that you can be. This was something that I, in my American impatience, wasn't good at. Hearing about writers getting six-figure advances, books rocketing to the top of the bestseller list and being optioned for the movies, I spent time that would have been better spent writing dreaming of the big break that would let me quit my day job and live happily ever after looking out across the rooftops of Paris (or, now that I'd settled in Japan, gazing out at a rock garden in Kyoto).

In most cases -- and here I'm talking about literary fiction but it holds true for other kinds of writing -- making it as a writer means settling in and letting things take as long as they take. It means writing day after day after day, with no guarantee whatsoever that the novel you're slaving over will be published (though you can take solace, however slight, in knowing that at least you have a better shot at it than if you weren't writing). It means holding tight to your conviction that you're a writer when people ask if you're still writing that book and how much money you've made from writing.

The "day after day" part didn't sink in for some years. I got really busy teaching, doing radio and TV shows, getting to know Tokyo. I was writing, but not every day because I felt I just didn't have the time.

Sometimes I'd think about something one of my writing teachers used to say: "If you want to write every day, you simply do." Straightforward advice that sounded disturbingly like: "If you want to climb Everest, you simply do." How, I wondered, did he manage it?

In the way that life sometimes works, it was only after I had kids and got a new --make that "revolutionary" -- perspective on what it means to be busy that I began to write every day. No more pondering what to write over a second and third cup of tea, puttering in the garden before getting started (the only plants in my garden now are the self-sustaining ones). I realized with a shock that I wasn't actually immortal, that my time on this earth was finite and I should spend it doing the things that mattered most to me.

Some days the writing goes slowly, sometimes quickly, and sometimes it doesn't seem to be going anywhere. But I've learned that it's all part of the creative process, whether good, bad, or ugly on a given day.

"I wouldn't dream of becoming a writer," a friend once told me. It was, she went on to explain, her idea of hell to face a blank screen every morning. But I've come to love it, to love how the dailiness allows for the time and space to focus on my craft, to explore what I have to say and how I want to say it. When I sit down to write, I feel like a potter sitting down at the wheel, a weaver at the loom, ready to concentrate all my energies on making what I create that day the best it can be.

 
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