As soon as I knew what a writer was, I considered myself a writer. In high school I took creative writing and loved it. The result was a lot of mediocre poetry, some that I absolutely loved and needed to write. What else would I have done with all those emotions?
The primary audience was always me. I wrote poems for boys sometimes and I wrote poems for class. The vast majority I would only share with friends who also wrote poetry. And I would read the poems over and over to myself, processing whatever pain or fear or love had inspired the words. I wrote, therefore I was a writer.
During my fourth and final year in college, second semester, as a senior majoring in Economics, I decided to take Creative Writing 101. For fun, and because I still loved to write. My classmates were mostly first year students who wanted to become writers and I enjoyed my time in their company. They were creative and many dressed in a dark, carefully chosen, intentionally sloppy style. Oily hair helped to keep hairstyles in place. Some were shy and feared the feedback. Others were outwardly confident and argued with the professor.
The professor herself was in her first semester at the school and had been thrown this class because another professor had to drop it at the last minute. She was a graduate of the famous Iowa Writer's Workshop and a published author. She asked for patience but was strong about her views and what she had learned. She also had the beginner educator's overly ambitious intention of giving each and every one of us personal attention and feedback, hoping to ignite our writing careers with a spark of her experience and knowledge.
For our final project, we had to write a piece that would be read by classmates as well as the professor. We'd have feedback from a number of people, therefore, and we'd discuss each person's writing as a group. I wrote a story in a style I thought shadowed Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes because I'd read it recently and been completely taken with his meandering descriptions and the fantasy world that emerges. My story was about a romantic moment that was clearly amorphous, backed up by a set of fantasy-style descriptions that were often confusing.
The feedback from the class was great. Some of my classmates were confused and gave pieces of advice, the story was very clearly not to the taste of others, and a few absolutely loved it because they could feel the experiences I'd tried to put down on paper. The variety of reactions was in itself a good lesson. But when I sat down with the professor for our one-on-one time, she delivered on the spark. And burned my writing down.
Her take was that nobody would ever publish this work, that if I wanted to be a writer I had to think about my audience as well as what a publisher and agent would think. I tried to explain that I wasn't writing to be published and she brushed me off by saying, 'Every writer wants to be published.' As if I didn't even know it, but that was my goal.
She gave me the perspective of a commercial writing world that was disastrous for me. She pointed out problems, asked me to make my descriptions more concrete, gave me a lot of painful advice. I re-wrote the story for the class, as that was my final assignment and my professor said so.
Being published was not my goal. After that I stopped writing. For almost 10 years, I couldn't write anything for myself without that critical voice in my head. When I put down words to express my emotions, they seemed insufficient, cliche, and worst of all, pathetic. The notebooks full of poems from the previous 8 years were relics, gems that had come from a different time. I was afraid to re-read them because I didn't want them to look foolish, too.
Losing my comfort with writing was painful, but it was only one part of life, and everything else moved forward in good ways. I ditched a very indirect career in finance and non-profit accounting for a life of travel, hoping to pick up work online in database management or something similar. I started off my remote career by continuing in non-profit work and looked for remote accounting gigs. Nothing really came through.
Then I saw a job for "a few good writers". It was the right fit. I was hired as a writer, writing web copy for someone far away. It was fast and dirty and quality was not the goal. Speed was.
From there I've built a writing career. I am paid to write, but not because I managed to live someone else's dream of getting published. It happened by accident. And best of all, nobody who reads what I've written knows it was written by me. I'm anonymous. It's perfect. If only that professor could see me now.
Not too long ago I finally opened up some of those high school notebooks again. I looked through a self-published book of poems from the 8th grade. And I opened the envelope that contained the story I'd written for my Creative Writing 101 final project, all the copies marked up by classmates, and the final version I turned in to the professor. Re-reading both versions, I decided that they were both good. But the final, concrete version was not to my taste.