The self-doubt of anyone who is a so-called “writer” can be a never-ending psychological and emotional battle. I know because I’ve been living with these doubts ever since I graduated from college.
Back then when people asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I told them I wanted to be a writer. There are many reasons for this but I’ll focus on one of the most important. I was still hurt – psychologically devastated, to be honest — by the grade of “D” I got slapped within my English composition class my first year of college at Wake Forest University.
It was clear and unequivocal: the professor didn’t like my writing. That’s tough on a young man just 18 years old. She really believes I suck at writing, I thought then and still do. It shattered my ego then and still burns my soul to this day.
But bad news often begets good news. I put that burning pain to use. Having played a lot of sports growing up, I had been in games where guys told me I sucked. I learned how to fight back and compete with them and beat their asses. Tell me I’m a bad player and I’ll come at you hard.
With a similar fire burning, I wanted to prove that professor wrong, win at her game and get revenge by getting better at writing even though I’m sure she couldn’t care less at this point and may not be alive. I was also worried that I would look stupid the rest of my life writing poorly and would never amount to anything. In a family of high achievers, I pictured myself turning out to be the one failure. It was a self-image I could not have lived with.
In those unsettling days right after college, people I shared my writing aspirations with asked me how I was going to make a living because writers don’t get paid that much unless they write a major best-selling book and it gets made into a movie or some other BS like that.
They suggested more practical career paths because the risks of becoming a famous writer are high. Not bad advice; I was aware of the risks. Yet I couldn’t shake my desire. In my mind, I had to become a writer and do nothing else because I couldn’t imagine waking up in the morning for 40 years of working life and wanting to do anything else. No writing equaled no life.
A few years later I found myself in a small office with an editor of a national newspaper. Three weeks earlier, he had assigned me to write a feature article for the paper. It was a test to see if I had the talent to become a member of the newspaper reporting staff – a full-time writing job that would have jumpstarted my writing career. On my way, I would have been.
But at that oh-so-important meeting, I could read the editor’s face. On my way? Yes. Out the door. The answer was no, I was not a good writer so would not be made a member of the reporting staff. He said I lacked writing and reporting experience (translation: you suck at writing).
If I wanted to build a writing career, he said, I should go work for a daily newspaper in a small market somewhere in Noplace, America. That sounded like a boondoggle, a path to poverty and psychological torment. My writing career looked unpromising. In fact, it wasn’t going anywhere. It didn’t exist. Death of a writing career before it even started.
This morning I watched a similar heart-breaking scene in the new movie “The Tender Bar.” J.J. Moehringer, the main character and author of the outstanding book – best I’ve read the best 15 years and maybe ever – sat in an office with a New York Times editor who told him that while his writing clips were good he had not been selected to be a full-time reporter for the newspaper.
Shattered, he walked out of the office to the road of roaming. We’ve all received this kind of news at some point in our lives. It feels something like being whacked in the face with a sledgehammer. You want to run out of your neighborhood and keep running and don’t want anyone to see you because you’re crying.
J.J. felt crushed, I believe because since he was eight years old he made up his mind he wanted to be a writer and started reading books non-stop and writing to improve at his chosen craft. Becoming super well-read and a top student, he gained acceptance to Yale where his mother had wanted him to go since he was eight.
His father wasn’t around for the emotional scene when he opened the acceptance letter – an emotional apex in the film. The boy’s Dad was never around. One day years earlier he called J.J. and told him he’d come by to pick him up to go to a baseball game. The little boy sat on his front steps waiting all night, but his father, estranged, emotionally disturbed, self-centered, alcoholic, and a man and woman beater, never showed up.
The little boy’s Uncle Charlie becomes his surrogate father. J.J. hangs out at Charlie’s neighborhood bar in Long Island, New York where he shares his words of advice on how J.J. should live his life and pursue his dream to become a writer.
I won’t spoil the rest of the story. But if you watch the movie, brace yourself. You might cry. I sure did.
J.J.’s story resonates with me because it’s about him wanting to become a writer and working hard for a long time to make that become a reality. He doesn’t know how good a writer he is; nor do I. He’s not sure he’s chosen the right career path; I’m still not sure either. He has no other real passions; same with me.
It’s as if this book and movie and J.J. the real guy came to this Earth to tell me his story so that I could think about my life as a writer and what it all means and if it’s all really worth it. J.J.’s story raises that dicey question – without answering it. So typical of life. We all unsuccessfully search for answers.
In the story, J.J. makes a big deal about whether he should call himself a writer. Without a published book can you really call yourself a writer? Are newspaper writing clips and blog posts validations that you’re worthy of being called a writer?
At age 25 he concludes that he is a writer. Confident in who he is, he then goes on in real life to write “The Tender Bar,” a memoir about his life growing up without a father and going to the bar all the time to be with friends and family.
After all these decades of writing without really believing I’m a writer, I now call myself a writer unsure whether a good or a bad one but definitely a writer. It’s scary to think I’ve spent all these years writing and may still be a bad writer. But’s it’s also true there’s nothing I can do about it except continue writing and trying to make it better. Understanding that is somewhat comforting.
Which reminds me of a letter I received 35 years ago from the professor at Wake Forest University who taught me a Shakespeare class during my senior year.
“Writers don’t talk about writing, they write,” he wrote.
His words reached me. I’ve been writing ever since. Whether boring or self-centered or stupid or bad or possibly even good sometimes, I’ve been writing just like J.J. who’s now a big star writer. It’s all either of us has ever wanted to do.
This morning, 36 years after I started writing for a living, I’m as unsure as I’ve ever been about whether this writing is good or good, dull or intriguing, worthwhile or worthless. And I still don’t know if I chose the right career path. Whatever. At least that’s another subject to write about.
Sammy Sportface, a sports blogger, galvanizes, inspires, and amuses The Baby Boomer Brotherhood. And you can learn about his vision and join this group's Facebook page here:
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