First off, a confession: I’ve never seen a full episode of Spongebob Squarepants. It came out at that strange time of my life when I had just started college, and we didn’t have cable TV, let alone streaming (it was the dark times, the old times). But I’m familiar enough with it, and feel like I speak memes and gifs as another language. Still, if I don’t know the exact source material, does that make me a real fan of the meme?
Okay, so that was a bit of a stretch to get into this. But I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is to be a Real Writer. A real anything, really. Thinking back to Pinocchio, what did it mean for him to be a real boy? When he could talk, he wasn’t real; when he had no strings, he wasn’t real… what did that weird Blue Fairy do to make him Real? For the Velveteen Rabbit, only true love made it real, and it was Real only after it had been rubbed raw, hugged to pieces, stuffing coming out of burst seams. So it seems like there’s definitely something to say about experience (and not all of it pleasant) feeding into being this idea of Real.
The other night I found a tweet from someone who’d joined an area writers’ group. This was her tweet
Fifteen thousand words a month. Anything less than that means you’re not a real writer. You don’t take it seriously enough. If you can’t crunch out fifteen thousand words each month, you’re not a real writer and are unwelcome among this group of writerly paragons. I’ve done NaNoWriMo in years past, and that’s 50,000 words, but that’s one month, and those haven’t been the healthiest months to be honest. A lot of people plan very carefully to get those fifty thousand down. They clear schedules, make outlines, do sprints, set daily goals. And in non-NaNoWri-Mos, they probably do similar things, but at such a pace that’s more sustainable. The years I successfully completed NaNoWriMo were years when I was teaching, and when you’re teaching, November is full of days off that I totally used to maximize my word vomit. But those were the years I was single with cats. My time was my own to do with what I pleased, and I was pleased to stay up til all hours writing a novel.
I spent a lot of years wondering what it meant to be a real writer. I always enjoyed writing, and it was always a big part of me. When I finished college and came home I discovered the myriad ways the internet could connect me with fandom. I discovered fanfiction. I wrote fanfiction. It was an outlet with zero pressure.
But it also had a fair amount of derision directed at it. Arguments include that it’s derivative (as if Paradise Lost wasn’t?), it’s the mark of a weak writer, it’s lazy, there’s no quality control. It’s a waste of time. Fanfiction will always be a source of disagreement. Sure, there’s poor quality work out there, but there’s also really well-written work. There’s also the point that fanfiction should not be making money off of a pre-existing work, and if you can’t make money writing, are you even a Real Writer?
I really wanted to be a Real Writer, so I decided maybe I would get my MFA. I’d write a book. I’d learn more about the craft. I’d work with other writers. I’d be real.
Much like that strange time gap I experienced with Spongebob, I entered into my MFA when emphasis was still on traditional publishing, complete with querying agents nonstop and signing with houses. We were encouraged to query. Our advisory board was comprised of agents, editors, and publishers, and it was a great experience. But the metric for being a real writer still fell heavily in favor of the traditional route. Self-publishing existed, but there were no gates to ensure quality, so why would anyone go that route? Real writers queried until their fingers bled and read rejections until their eyes were raw and their hearts were stone.
Are you even a real writer if you don’t put that work in? If you can’t write 15,000 words a month, can’t query ad infinitum (wait–do those 15,000 words include the number of words in your queries and accompanying synopses?)… If you have a job that’s not writer? If you have a family? If you have shhh… other hobbies?
I spent a couple of years after finishing grad school just sort of… meh about writing. My thesis novel needed some more work, but I didn’t know what kind of work, wasn’t sure where to find another group of writers to work with, and was really just burned out on that particular story. But I had no other ideas for other stories, and that’s where I think I started feeling like maybe this idea that I could be a writer was a silly dream. And at least my school district considered my MFA and I got bumped up the pay scale. Or as bumped as you can get in that district. I drifted. People asked how my writing was going, and it just wasn’t. Forget 15,000 words a month, I wasn’t getting 1500. Or 15.
In the end, it was Dragon Age that saved me. Okay, that’s dramatic. But Dragon Age has done a lot of good for me, and in this case it was no different. In 2011, after two years of not writing, I finished Dragon Age: Origins and was so taken with the world and the characters and the story that I wrote. I wrote fanfiction. I posted it. I started writing more and posting more. And more than that? I stopped caring if I was a real writer or not. I was just writing, and that was all that mattered.
It was healing, in a way (as I discovered during a 3am chat with Schattenriss the other night when Smol Human decided we needed to get up and sit, screaming, on the living room couch from 3-5am, and we were discussing the Writers’ Group from Hell tweet). With DA fanfiction, for the first time in a very long time I was writing because I loved it. Because I enjoyed what I was doing. I was writing for the sake of writing. I was improving my craft and experimenting with style and voice and creating stories for characters I loved, and I was doing it because I wanted to. Maybe some months I churned out thousands of words, I don’t know; I didn’t really keep track, to be honest. There was freedom to write for the sake of it, and it was a feeling I hadn’t had in a long time.
It’s been over ten years since I finished my MFA, and I’m not published (yet). I’ve written copious amounts of Dragon Age fanfiction, and I have no regrets. I have a family, including a wild Smol Human who is a wonder to watch grow (and a handful and a half, but he’s still amazing). I have a job I love. I definitely don’t have the ability to commit to 15,000 words every single month. Some months I’m churning out the words, and others I’m revising and editing. Still others I have other things going on and am lucky if I get significant writing done at all. Am I any less of a real writer?
I don’t think so. Everyone has a different pace and different path toward reaching their goals. For some it may be 15,000 words a month, but to impose that upon everyone who wants to write with you, and worse, to insinuate that if they can’t or don’t want to do that, they’re less of a writer or don’t take writing seriously enough?
Well, that’s when I suppose Spongebob memes are going to have to suffice, because dignified responses just won’t cut it. They’ll also be less than 15,000 words long.