Last week I had a white wine and four $1 oysters with a friend of my second younger sister Sara.
We were chatting about the things that all older sisters discuss with their younger sister’s friends: how to survive your early 20s (generally speaking), how to change your career during your early 20s (more specifically speaking), and why none of that will matter once you’re pushing 30 (experience speaking).
Then our conversation turned to the topic of writing. I’m not saying that I try to convince all people who show a speck of interest in writing to become a writer, but it’s pushing 75% at this point, especially if the people are a funny, interested and interested as my younger sister’s friend.
But this was the first time the chat turned to the all-important and rarely asked question of: how am I supposed to figure out what I want to write?
I give sister’s friend endless credit for broaching that seemingly obvious issue. It is not obvious. Well, I take that back. Some people are aspiring science writers who have always and will always love writing about science. Same goes for sports writers and crime writers and, apparently, Winnie Cooper (aka Danica McKellar) who writes math text books. But there are those of us who just want to write editorial stuff or first person essays or fictional screenplays that can’t be categorized by a specific genre. How do we figure out what we should be spending our time writing? Or, maybe more importantly, how do we figure out what we should be writing?
Here is what I told my sister’s friend to do (very important note: I keep awkwardly leaving her name out because I don’t have permission to use it, not because I don’t remember it). This advice should be taken with a grain of salt because I’m not sure if it really works. By that I mean, it lead me to discover what I wanted to write, and I have had success in writing on those topics BUT I’m not a millionaire, so we can’t be sure this is the perfect path.
Pretend you’ve been assigned a weekly essay in which you are required to write 500 words on any topic you’d like – literally any topic in the entire world. Pretend some really fantastic editor or agent or mentor assigned you this weekly “column” and will be expecting it in his or her inbox every single Friday for six months (yes, six month). If you have an actual friend, writing mentor, or loving parent who will actual accept these weekly e-mails, even better. Bottom line, they are due by noon every week, no exceptions. Set aside $20 per week to treat yourself to something nice after you hand in your assignment (I vote manicures, but suit yourself). This is your payment, and while I realize you’re paying yourself, you’re gaining WAY more than the $20 you’re losing, so don’t worry about it.
Now, write. ANYTHING. Like, if you think your neighbor is a spy one week, write an investigative journalism piece. Or if you’re super mad at your boyfriend, write a scathing, 500 word e-mail (that I am in no way authorizing you to actually send).
See what comes out. You may write four different things for the first month. Don’t stress. You may write on the exact same topic for the first six weeks. Also don’t stress. You may get to your six month mark and realize you have tens of thousands of words on an array of topics that make no sense as a collection, let alone a writing career. Stress even less.
It’s not about what you’re writing – it’s about how you’re writing. This isn’t an exercise in discovering that you’re a fitness writer (though if that happens, great!). This is an exercise in discovering your voice as a writer. How do you like to write? What kind of writing really interests you? First person storytelling? Humor? Mystery? Poetry? Fashion?
There isn’t one answer, but here’s the whole point of this charade: if you’re going to start thinking about how to make money as a writer, you’ll need to know what publications or outlets are a fit for your style of writing, and you’re going to need a style of writing to match to publications. I firmly believe that the only way to discover that is to write regularly and freely.
Feel free to take this advice out for a spin. You can even send your pieces to me at 20Nothings@gmail.com every week. I may not be able to read them all, but I will let you know I’ve received them so at least you’ll be accountable to a real human.
And if that doesn’t work, I’d e-mail Nicholas Sparks. He’s definitely made a million dollars (a million times over), so his advice might be slightly better…