Becoming a Writer

So you’re a writer—or want to be, anyway. There you are, writing away in secret, terrified that you’re probably deluding yourself. Your family and friends say nice things about your work—but they’re just saying that and anyway, what do they know? Somehow—how?—you have to work up the courage to show your fledgling work to someone who knows something about writing.

“How do I make the leap from baby steps to published writer?” writers often ask me. “How did you do it?”

It’s different, of course, for every writer. In my case, I was writing stories and poems as a child, sitting at the dining room table. But it took me many years to realize that, to become a writer, one needs to write—regularly. This may sound obvious, but keeping the bum in the chair (as opposed to imagining that one day you’ll suddenly just be a writer) is key. No matter how busy you are, you need to make a commitment to yourself to write. Even a couple of hours every weekend is a start at learning the discipline that writing requires.

Along with writing, you also need to be reading, widely. Reading will show you the possibilities of your chosen form, and you’ll unconsciously imbibe structure, pacing, scene construction, and much else. And when your closet grows too small and suffocating—when you just have to know if you can write, or die in the attempt—then seek out a creative writing course where you’ll meet participants who, like you, are crazy about words. 

Yes, you’ll be terrified. But terror comes with the territory. If you’re a writer, you’re drawing on your own emotional experience even if your work isn’t autobiographical, and that always feels vulnerable. But the joy of having your work responded to and appreciated more than compensates. Gradually you’ll learn to shelve your ego and stand aside, listening instead of reacting defensively, so that you can mull over the comments later and use them to help make your work as good as it can be. That’s the great journey every authentic writer must undertake—to let go of the ego in order to surrender to the needs of the work.

In my case, I went from closeted status to a couple of writing courses to a degree program in creative writing. After that I floundered, until a serious car accident forced me to commit to writerhood, no matter what. (I don’t, by the way, recommend this route!) I paid off my debts, quit my well-paid job (sure I’d be a bag lady within months), and jumped off a cliff. I found a peer group of writers who supported me through the early transition period. Now, twenty-some years later, I have three books, a radio play, a completed novel, and many poems and essays behind me. I’ve also had the joy and privilege of sharing my passion for writing with many beginning writers.

A great first step is to take advantage of the presence of a writer-in-residence. Every winter the Haig-Brown House in Campbell River hosts a published writer who acts as a mentor and first reader for other writers, whether just beginning or long established. A writer-in-residence will read your work, meet with you, and provide useful editorial feedback. The WIR can also offer suggestions about forming a peer group, places to get published, and much more. And it’s free of charge.

This winter I’m the WIR at Haig-Brown House until April 15th. You can contact me at Haig-Brown House in Campbell River, 250.286.6646, or email me at No matter what your stage of development as a writer, I promise it won’t be painful. You’ve nothing to lose but your closet walls!