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.