On Becoming a Writer Who Writes

(Photo of and by: Amy Barr)

Until about a month ago, I was a writer who didn’t write. That may seem like a strange admission from someone who has made her living as a writer for the past 25 years, but it’s true in a fundamental way. Yes, I’ve edited thousands of articles and written a couple of hundred during my years at Time Inc., Worth and Working Mother magazines. I’ve created pages upon pages of content for dozens of websites and written countless pieces of marketing materials over the past couple of decades. But until recently, I never shared a real piece of myself with a reader. I rarely wrote about things that moved me at my core and even when I did, in my head, there was too much at stake to share those personal reflections.

There are many, many writers in the writers-who-don’t-write club (you know who you are), some with a modicum of talent, some with an extraordinary amount. Whatever our skill level, we may as well have zero aptitude and not a thing to say if we don’t put pen to paper (or fingertip to keyboard). Certainly there are those who write for their own pleasure who are happy to never show their work to a single soul. But most writers do want to share; for those who have a hard time doing so, the trick is identifying roadblocks and figuring out ways to flatten them, or at least get around them.

A couple of roadblock-flatteners I’ve been working on:

  • Silencing the perfectionist in my head, the voice that compels me to self-edit as I write instead of getting my thoughts out then returning for a second (third, fourth and fifth) look later.
  • Trying to write in a voice I’d like to read. To that end, I’ve spent time thinking about authors I treasure and why. I love Mary Karr and Tobias Wolff for their searing honesty and humor in the face of awfulness. I love the way Allan Gurganus tells stories in a way that’s elegantly spare yet thick as chowder. It’s these specific voices, rather than some vague notion of writerly-ness, that inspire and inform my own.

It takes tenacity to turn thoughts into prose; it takes guts to share those words. When you publish a piece of writing — or simply show your essay to a friend — you make yourself vulnerable to criticism, to misinterpretation, to disappointment. On the one hand, your readers might not get it, might not get you. And that can lead you down a rabbit hole mined with self-doubt: Are my experiences boring or meaningless, or I am such a bad writer that I can’t express what I want to say?

If I hate what I’ve written, I hit delete and start again. But I don’t get up. I do not get up.

On the flip side, your readers might understand exactly what you’re saying, which means you’ve been frighteningly successful in revealing some piece of yourself, perhaps a piece that’s shameful or painful, or that’s been safely hidden for a long time. Connection with the audience is the ultimate goal for every artist, be they writer, painter, or musician. But you’ve got to be brutally honest for a real connection to occur and sometimes, that’s terrifying. I recently wrote of an experience that scared the shit out of me, both while it was happening but even more so afterward, when I realized that my reaction to the event revealed a pretty ugly side of me. (Still waiting back from my editor on that one, but ready and willing for the harsh feedback I expect to get from readers should the piece be published.)

Writers who don’t write are often paralyzed by a fear of failure, which for me, translated into this thinking: If I never put anything I care about out there, I can never fail. I can always be a writer in my mind, if not in actuality. But we’re also stymied by the fear of failure’s crazy cousin, fear of success: If my writing is understood or even celebrated, will that change everything? And will those changes cause confusion or anxiety or lead to responsibilities I’m not sure I can handle? Will I feel achingly regretful that I didn’t act sooner?

I’m no poster girl for overcoming these incapacitating companion fears. On any given day, either or both crawl through my nervous system, bogging me down or short-circuiting creativity at the synapses. But something has changed. Lately, I’m fighting back against the forces that kneecap me, that turn me into a procrastinator seduced by any and all distractions. I make myself sit in this fucking chair until there’s one paragraph, then another. If I hate what I’ve written, I hit delete and start again. But I don’t get up. I do not get up. And when something’s got to give in a day that’s too full, I don’t let the writing be the automatic cut. I give up something else.

That’s the discipline piece and it’s a work in progress, to be sure. As for sharing, that gets a little easier every time. I’ve recently submitted several revealing pieces to this very website, despite the fact that other contributors have more impressive literary resumes and intimidatingly dazzling voices. I no longer take it as an assessment of my character or talent if a piece gets rejected or heavily edited. (I’m a heavy editor myself.) But more important, I’m becoming okay with giving you, reader, a glimpse into me. Maybe you’ll relate, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll laugh… or groan. For me, putting it out there has been a revelation. I may not be the greatest writer but I’m finally brave enough to let anyone who wants to decide that for himself.

So, my public, stay tuned and be forewarned: I’m also a singer who doesn’t sing.

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

7 Responses

  1. Editor’s Note: Sharing is Caring | Tue Night

    […] Barr tells how she learned to share more of herself as a […]

  2. nnyl

    I have the same issue. I write all the time for my job, but writing technical manuals and pouring yourself into a novel are completely different worlds. When I started the novel last fall, I thought no problem, I should have a 90,000 word draft knocked out by the end of March. I’ve probably written close to 90,000 words, most of those in re-writing the first two chapters and parts of those chapters over and over until they sound right to me. I’ve recently decided that approach isn’t working and I should just plow through the first draft and then edit.

  3. ScottHewitt

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on being a writer who doesn’t write. I have been feeling bad lately for not finding the time to write, for lacking that dedication and persistence. I especially like your idea that the time you dedicate to writing should not be the first thing that gets cut when the outside world demands your attention. I am going to try and follow that advice.

  4. MediaMonday: Becoming A Writer Who Writes | LitChat

    […] to Amy Barr’s “On Becoming A Writer Who Writes,” originally published in Tue/Night on March 18, 2014 and reposted on March 21, 2014 in the Huffington […]

  5. Amy Barr

    ScottHewitt  Thanks for you comments. I should have added one more roadblock-flattener to the list: Don’t be stymied by guilt over what you didn’t do. Try really hard to focus on what you did, even if it was one good paragraph.

  6. Amy Barr

    nnyl  I think that’s a much better approach, at least for now — let me know how it works.

  7. Hello, It’s Me. The Writer’s Voice | Tue Night

    […] essays, my voice is strictly my own. I never set out to write like anyone else, not even the authors I greatly admire. Nor am I conscious of trying to consistently sound the same. That happens naturally — as long as […]


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