I hear the boys playing in one of the bedrooms. Their voices are confident as they navigate an imaginary world in which they are the protectors against all manner of evil.
Since their guns are only plastic and their battle zone is really a 10-year-olds’ bedroom with a Star Wars comforter and Legos on the shelf, they announce their actions and describe for each other their surroundings. They say things like, “I come around the corner and then you see me.” Or “I’m loading my gun while you are running ahead into the building.”
As I head into the bedroom, I remember the Neil Gaiman quote that I have drawn on so much in my writing life lately, the one where he tells a woman to “pretend that she was someone who could do it” when faced with a task she wasn’t sure how to tackle. “Not pretend to do it, ” he clarifies in Make Good Art, “but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped.”
Lately, I’ve been wondering what it might look like to apply those “rules of pretending” that children know so well in their play to my writing life, to pretend to be a writer who knows how to develop a sustainable career.
The Rules of Pretending to Be a Writer
Rule 1: Decide who you want to be
Each time the boys play like this, they decide for themselves who they want to be. They might fill in the backstory as they go, but they always announce to each other, “I’m the prison guard, ” or “I’m the captain.”
When it comes to my writing life, I won’t just wake up one day and discover I have published a book. It starts by deciding I am a writer. I don’t have to be annoying about it, but in order for me to move confidently in the world of words, I need to tell other people I am a writer and to accept their affirmation of this news.
Sometimes, I don’t feel like a writer or believe I should call myself one. On those days, I have to pretend. At the very least, I may just have to fill in the backstory for myself and others as I go: I write on my blog; I write for a few online publications; I am writing a book.
Rule 2: Tell people what you are doing
Just as the boys have to describe the world they are creating and the actions they are performing, so too, I may need to reveal to the world the work I am doing. Blog posts can go unnoticed; short stories may never get published; books take a long time to write.
In the meantime, I can maintain my momentum by telling people what I am working on, by creating interest in my writing by sharing it with others.
But that means rubbing shoulders with other writers. That requires a rule of its own.
Rule 3: Make room for other people
Sometimes, when the boys are playing, I hear their voices rise a little, their tone becoming a little too sharp. “You can’t do that!” one of them will say. Or, “I was supposed to be the one to arrest him!”
I have to resist the urge to intervene. “It’s not real!” I want to tell them, so they can get back to getting along. But the point isn’t whether the situation is real or not. The point is whether they can find a place for each other in this make-believe world, whether they can keep playing together.
While the writing life has its solitary moments, the modern writer with one eye on social media and building a platform has to figure out how to make room for other writers. We can get so competitive with one another, wanting others’ success for ourselves. Often, it’s not real–the rivalry we create in our minds with other writers. But we must approach our writing life from a place of abundance, not scarcity, to see that there’s room for everyone, all the books and blogs and essays and poems.
Just like my sons’ imaginary play, the point is not whether another writer’s book sales affect mine. Not really.
It’s about whether we as writers can all learn to play nicely together.