Recently, my wife and I visited the local Waffle House for breakfast. When we sat down the guy behind the counter told us, “Hey, I’m not usually the guy doing the serving, so I want to apologize in advance if I screw anything up.”
Suddenly, I was on edge. I watched carefully as he took our drink orders, trying to read his upside down handwriting with no success. I thought, Did he get them right? Will bring me Diet Coke instead of Coke Zero? A minute later the drinks came and they were fine. Phew, I thought wiping my hand across my sweat drenched brow. Crisis averted. But I feared the worst was still to come. When we gave our food order I worried he might bring me the loaded hash browns with gravy instead of chili, a fate I have feared since the day the menu changed to include that damnable option. Only that moment too passed without incident. Finally, when we were ready to leave I scrutinized the check to make sure he hadn’t charged us for anything we didn’t order. But, to my surprise, everything was fine. The guy did a great job, as good a job as any full time waiter ever did. But he started out by apologizing for himself, and from there on my opinion of him was tarnished.
I’m not telling you this to pick on the guy at Waffle House. He was obviously tired, working a double shift, and he still did a phenomenal job. But I fear that all too often we make the same mistake he did. We apologize for ourselves before we’ve even started. We think that maybe if we lower people’s expectations they’ll have mercy on us if we screw something up, but in reality we’re just making ourselves look unprofessional.
“But, Albert,” I hear you say, “We aren’t professional. We’re just podunk unpublished writers trying to make it in a world that hates us.”
Shhh. Not so loud. Sure, most of us don’t have a book deal yet. Some of us are still struggling through our first novel. But they don’t know that.
Have you ever told someone you were an aspiring writer? It’s an easy trap to fall into. Only if you look closely, you’ll see that “aspiring” is really an apology. It’s you saying, “Yes, I know it’s basically silly to think I’ll ever make something of myself with my writing. Probably it’s just a phase I’m going through. Please forgive me for thinking I could ever write anything but a grocery list.”
Why do we hide behind the “aspiring” label? Because we’re afraid of responsibility. No one expects anything of an aspiring writer. Aspiring writers are amateurs, hobbyists, unimportant wannabes who probably still live with their parents. If they never produce any work of value in their lives, no one is going to be disappointed.
That’s why the moniker of “aspiring” writer is so dangerous. It instantly puts people on the alert that we’re not worth paying attention to. It doesn’t matter how much work we’ve put into our novel, or how many years we’ve been practicing the craft, as long as we keep saying we’re aspiring writers we’re basically saying we’re not really writers at all.
And believe me I’m preaching as much to myself here as anybody. I’ve managed to cast off that deceptively comfortable label of “aspiring,” but I still hear myself hedging my bets when I talk about my writing to others.
The other day, I was telling a man about my book The Mulch Pile, and I said something along the lines of, “Well it’s sort of a book about brotherhood, and basically one of the brothers may not be everything he seems to be and there this whole thing with the father who…”
Do you hear the apology in there? Because I do. I sound ashamed to be talking about my work. Here’s what I should have said: “It’s a story about a mulch pile that comes to life and starts killing people.” Is there more to the story than that? Well sure, there are whole layers of nuance and narrative uncertainty woven into the tale, but the kernel of the story, the idea that made me sit down two years ago during NaNoWriMo and write the thing was basic and primal: “Mulch piles are kind of creepy. What if a mulch pile became a monster?” Is it far fetched and ludicrous? Well sure it is. But that’s the point. If I wrote believable and normal I’d be bored out of my skull. And I have to believe that if the core idea was powerful enough to get me to sit down and write the book, it will be powerful enough to get you to go out and read the book. I have to stop apologizing for myself.
I’m here to tell you that if you write and write seriously, you’re a writer. Period. And that means you have an obligation to act and write professionally.
Stop apologizing for yourself.
Are you imperfect? Sure. But don’t tell the whole world about it. Maybe they won’t notice.
So stand up for yourself, and stand up for your story. This is what you do. Stop aspiring and start writing.
If you read Kristen Lamb’s blog regularly, some of this may sound familiar. There is a good reason for that.