I’ve always been interested in semantics. The way we say things and the words we use are often very fun to break down for me. It’s one of the things that drove me towards becoming an English teacher back in the day. During those years, I loved nothing more than breaking down a piece of literature with my students and I was often amazed at how each class might look at the same poem, play, story, or novel with a completely unique perspective. That’s probably the thing I miss most about teaching.
I’ve been thinking lately about a semantical distinction. As soon as I learned to read, I started writing. I remember my first book was written on Grandma’s old Smith-Corona typewriter in the basement. It was an eight-page, exhaustive history of Dinosaurs, complete with illustrations. I brought it up to my parents and asked them to please send it to the people who make books. I never did hear from those people.
Perhaps that was foreshadowing of some of my later experiences with the big publishing houses…but I digress.
I’ve always written. Journals, stories, letters, notes, all the time. I still have some of my school notebooks as far back as junior high and the margins are littered with thoughts and ideas that are very far afield of the topics I was supposed to be covering in those pages. It’s even more demonstrative in my notebooks in high school. This could explain a few grades I received, now that I consider it. My personal journals and other notebooks are often very fun for me to leaf through now and I’ve mined them over the years for different projects. Point is, I’ve always engaged in and enjoyed the activity of writing.
But was a I a writer? I don’t think I would have called myself one at the time. I was busy being loads of other things, often all at once. The same is likely true if applied to my life as an adult. After college, I was a teacher, then an administrator, was always a bartender, and a few other things here and there. I still wrote, quite a lot at times. At any given time, I was writing songs, stories, the occasional play (yes, I even worked on a musical), and eventually my first novel, which remains to this day in a place of honor, locked in a drawer in my office, where it will likely remain forever and ever. But I wrote it.
The first novel was my “Can I write a novel?” project. I could and I did. That the book is not likely publishable is immaterial now, since it gave me my first introduction to the world of writers and publishing and all that and I learned a lot from my first foray into that world. I’d left education to be a stay-at-home dad for the kids while we lived in Hawaii and I’d discovered blogging, which I really enjoyed. I published for over a decade as “Aloha Kugs,” but if I’m being honest, I don’t think I would have called myself a writer then either. I would have said, “I’d like to be, but I’m not now.”
I was writing every day back then, working on both the first novel, the blog, and other projects. I was publishing something weekly on the blog. Some weeks I’d publish multiple columns, if I felt like it and I had something to say. I wasn’t making money from it, but I don’t think this is about money. I’ve made money doing loads of jobs throughout my life, from washing dishes at fourteen, to hanging off the back of the garbage truck, to mixology. I’ve made money selling books now too, but honestly, I think I really started feeling like a writer because of something that had nothing, in that moment anyway, to do with writing or money.
I think it was a choice.
As I’ve said, I’ve been writing for years. I took it very seriously at times and at others, not seriously at all. I’ve been driven to publish and I’ve been afraid to publish. I’ve sought representation and run from it as well. I always kept writing, but there were times that it was clearly a hobby: one I was quite passionate about, but a hobby nevertheless. So, what changed?
Over a year ago, I decided to get serious about completing my novel The Last Good Day. I had four different novel projects I was messing around with but that was the story that kept poking me, over and over. It was those characters who wouldn’t let me go, pleading with me to tell their story. This is a real thing for many writers, by the way. The characters in our heads often become very insistent on the things they do or say, regardless of what we want them to do.
So, I decided, “I’m going to finish this book and see where these quirky characters take me and then I’ll decide what to do next.” I finished a draft. I edited. I revised. I had a team of readers review it and comment. I revised. I worked with some professionals. I revised again and again and eventually I felt like I had something worth trying to get published. I went to the big conference in NYC in hopes of learning more, obviously, but also in an effort to meet an agent who’d make all my dreams come true, because that’s what I thought I wanted. Turns out I was wrong about that, but that’s a different story. After months of working the emails to connect with the agents that I’d met in NY, I considered packing it in with The Last Good Day entirely. I’d started work on another novel with different characters and was having fun with that, but then something happened.
I recently wrote about this a little in the blog “From ‘Fantasy Camp’ to ‘Livin' the Dream,’" which you can scroll down and check out, but it talks about how last Christmas break, while visiting our house at the shore or by clicking HERE. Short version is that I sat down at the dining room table at our house at the shore with all of my materials for every project I’ve touched in the previous years and I made a choice. It was a long and difficult debate, especially as I was having it with myself and apparently, I can be a real pain in the posterior.
In the end, I decided that The Last Good Day, and more specifically, “Avery” and “Angela” were not done with me yet, nor I with them. And while I was going to continue to shepherd them and tell their story, things were going to change.
I was immediately filled with both relief and dread. I felt excited and motivated and anxious, but more importantly, I saw a path forward for those characters and every other person living in my head, anxiously awaiting their turn to have their stories told. While they might still lament the fact that they didn’t come to exist in John Green, Kaui Hart Hemmings, or John Scalzi’s heads instead of mine. That path forward was suddenly something I could see in way I couldn’t before and it was a path that started sitting at the table of our shore house and will eventually lead back there, as the wife and I plan to retire there someday far in the future.
“This is the business we have chosen” I thought to myself, which made me want to watch “Godfather II” all over again, but the point is I made a choice in that moment. That was the moment I stopped thinking of myself as someone who likes to write, who writes to process the world, who writes for fun. For better or worse, that was the moment I became a writer. Not because I started a business, not because I now earn money from my books, and certainly not because I am taking it more seriously, although that’s important.
I am a writer because I chose to be one. Maybe I was a writer all along but I don’t think it really mattered until I embraced that part of my creative journey. It didn’t matter until I created space in my life for this to be something I do, for real, for the rest of my life. There won’t be any more “I’m not going to do this anymore” moments. My chips are all in now and maybe they always were. All I know is that I sat down at that table as someone who enjoyed writing, cherished the art and process of writing, loved everything about it, but when I stood up and finally went to bed, I was a writer.
Maybe it’s not really a semantics question at all, but rather one of identity. Regardless, this is the business I have chosen, and that has made a great deal of difference in my life and hopefully, in my work.