Setting Myself Up…

Oh, so many connotations to this phrase…

I set myself up to write by starting small. I sequestered a cozy, functional space in our former garage and configured my desk so that I’d have both a view to the backyard and a practical L-shaped work surface.

Over the years, I bought a series of laptops and a progression of printers, desk lamps, file drawers, color-codable file folders, bookends, marking pens.

Gradually, I expanded, joined a critique group, flew to conferences, bought and read everything from Stephen King’s On Writing to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books.

That is, I provisioned myself with the trappings. I don’t denigrate these; I rely on all of them. They remain necessary but, as mathematicians would say, insufficient.

Setting myself up to be A Writer required a different set of tools—software for my head. I had to learn to gearshift from “I write for kids” to “I Am A Writer.”

Four misspent years on an untenable middle-grade novel, “The Secrets You Tell,” didn’t do it. Nor did another four or five on a picture book, “Mr. Bellow’s Cello.” Great titles, it turns out, have to be accompanied by great text.

Finally selling a story to an educational publisher helped, until I saw the published story. The editor revised my submission so much, she was generous to have paid me. What she actually bought was the idea, sort of like a “treatment” for a screenplay. So, I notched myself back down from what I am to what I did. Selling a story to Highlights almost cranked me up to calling myself A Writer. But I stopped the same day I quit sending Highlights plaintive letters asking when they’d publish the darn story. (They never did. Maybe the title, “On the Doorposts of Ellie’s House,” wasn’t catchy enough.)

All the while, I deducted the “professional” expenses for the computers, the how-to books, the conference registrations, etc. from my taxes, until my accountant questioned how professional they were. You mean you can’t deduct expenses for a profession you’d like to have? For a serious hobby? A meaningful pastime? OK, OK, a frustrating money- and time-waster? Not forever, you can’t.

Then, thanks to meeting an editor at a conference, along came the Carus Family, publishers of the Cricket and Cobblestone magazines. I showed that accountant! Twenty or so pieces and five years later, I’d made a fortune of, oh, about, $4,000.

“Professional” doesn’t mean you have to be able to live on your earnings, right? It just means you have to earn at least as much as you spend. I almost qualified, sort of, as long as I didn’t count two of the computers, any of the airfare, the desk, the lamps, or the file folders. And, it turned out that a proliferation of magazine articles and legal tax deductions were enough to set me up in my mind as Sort of A Writer. I hadn’t realized there was a half-step between “I write” and “I Am A Writer.”

Finally, Erin walked into my life. Attaining what I hadn’t expected to be able to attain—an agent—propelled me that last giant half-step. Neil Armstrong may have leaped onto the moon. In my mind, I was over the moon.

Until I started telling people, “I am A Writer,” and they asked, “Have I read any of your books?” Nope. No books. Not yet. But, soon.

Soon enough that I am now setting myself up for something else—disappointment. I want this debut book to be so fantastically awe-striking, so cherished, so block-bustery, it will win prizes for which children’s middle-grade nonfiction isn’t even eligible—the Pulitzer, the Booker, raves from Michiko Kakutani. OK, I’ll stop short of the Nobel; that would be ridiculous.

Each cobblestone step set me up for the next one, even when I didn’t know what or where it was. Setting my sights myopically brought me to being A Writer circuitously. There may be no other path; at least, there wasn’t for me. Now that I’ve switched from microscope to telescope and shifted my gaze to the stratosphere, I don’t mind that I may be disappointed. Looking for and setting up what doesn’t (yet) exist is, I’m learning, what makes A Writer.



Filed under rejection and success, Writing, Writing and Life

7 responses to “Setting Myself Up…

  1. Isn’t it interesting how we put so much focus on trying to label what we do? I remember being at a retreat last year, and getting in the elevator with a stranger. The retreat had an entire floor of the hotel to itself, so when this man saw me push that button he smiled at me and said, “oh, you must be one of the authors here for the retreat.” My mouth fell open and I stammered out something unintelligible, thus proving to him that I was indeed, an eloquent wordsmith. It had honestly NEVER occurred to me to call myself an author–I was barely comfortable, in my unpublished and uncontracted station of life, calling myself a writer, and here this man had mistaken me for an Author? I spent the rest of the day trying the word on for size, but I couldn’t get it to fit until this fall when my manuscript was acquired. Since then I’ve walked around the house in the title Author a few times, but still haven’t had the nerve to wear it in public. I’m saving it to wear to the party when one of us wins the Nobel! 🙂


  2. J. Anderson Coats

    I’ve never *not* considered myself a writer. Even when I was very small. I’ve always been a writer. I wrote stories in crayon. I wore out notebooks by the dozen. I was thrilled when my family got its first computer; I took it over and taught myself to type fifty words a minute before I hit puberty.

    As far as I’m concerned, having a published book or a series deal or a contracted sequel doesn’t make you a writer. *Writing* makes you a writer. Butt-in-chair, pages every day, one word in front of the next. The blood and bone and muscle of creating a narrative. Those are the things that matter. The rest will follow.


  3. Natalie Dias Lorenzi

    Like Jeannie, I feel funny calling myself an author even now. Like J., I’ve called myself a writer for quite some time, but it’s always had a different connotation for me than the word “author.” I’d be curious to hear if other writers out there call themselves authors before they’ve published a book. I know I call my 9-year-old students “authors” and so do they. So why does author have to mean published?

    I just looked up “author” in the trusty online dictionary, and it says:

    a person who writes a novel, poem, essay, etc.; the composer of a literary work, as distinguished from a compiler, translator, editor, or copyist.

    Notice it says “write,” not “publish.”



  4. Lynda Mullaly Hunt

    I never fessed up to being a writer before signing with Erin. I found that by telling people I was a writer, that I would immediately get the question, “What have you published?” They would ask this with such expectation in their faces, and when I had to say that I was “prepublished,” their eyebrows would drop with an, “Oh.”
    How can you posibly get published without the work of writing unpublished beforehand? No one becomes and engineer or a teacher without training, right?

    Thanks for the post, Cynthia! I always enjoy your writing! I can “hear” you inside of it and it makes me happy. 😉


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  6. Pingback: Perspective, Vulnerability, and Action Figures (or things that aren’t just about Lynda, you know) | EMU's Debuts

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