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January 22, 2016

How do you know if you want to be a writer?

by Byddi Lee

Do you remember when you were young and people asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up? I changed my mind so many times that my mother had trouble keeping track. Before I’d even left high school, I’d seriously contemplated the following professions:

Airline pilot – until I discovered I didn’t even like driving a car.

Geological engineer – just like my uncle, I wanted to go work on oil rigs and mine for precious minerals. He tried to put me off the idea, saying it was not a good job for a woman, sharing a rig with all those men. As a boy-mad teen, that didn’t sound like such a bad thing, but I followed his advice.

Veterinarian ¬– until I did a work placement with a vet. It broke my heart when they euthanized healthy animals whose owners no-longer wanted them.

Zoologist - because of Willard Price’s Amazon Adventure and the rest of his books, coupled with a love of David Attenborough’s TV programs. This one I kept coming back to even though my careers teachers tried to advise me to apply for medicine, dentistry or pharmacy at university. I just wanted to be a zoologist. Most of my friends didn’t even know what a zoologist did, thinking that I wanted to work at the local zoo.

During this time I didn’t consider writing as a career. I did like creative writing, but loathed writing the exposition necessary for an essay in History or English Literature. In fact, English Literature was the subject I hated the most. I found the book choices uninspiring and the lessons boring. Consequently, I believed that scientists couldn’t write and that they could be neither creative nor artistic. I had to pick a camp. I chose science.

However, that didn’t prevent me from keeping a daily diary for every single day of my teens. I threw it out when I was in my late early thirties. I wish I’d kept it.

I started my university career as a zoology student, but by the time graduation arrived that had morphed onto an Honors Degree in Environmental Biology. As my teachers had predicted, it was hard to get a job. I spent three years working as a Research Associate at Queen’s University, Belfast. I even had a paper published in a science journal. Writing beckoned even then, though I didn’t recognize it.

As a member of university staff, I signed up for a Masters of Science in Computer Science. It was a really interesting course that combined my curiosity about how the world works with, what was then, cutting edge technology. I realized that writing my thesis had been the most satisfying part of the course. My classmates thought I was nuts.

Unwilling to plunge in to a career in computers, I went back to university, for a third time, to study for my teaching certification. I loved teaching and found myself relating to the pupils by telling stories to illustrate my point.

In my free time, I signed up for a correspondence course in creative writing, wondering if maybe a scientist could write. This one sure wanted to. Life got in the way, and I never finished that course. I travelled a lot. My experiences were sometimes so intense that they hammered from the inside of my brain to get out, to take the form of words, begging to be shared.

That was when I realized that I just had to write. The urge to communicate at times overpowered the desire for privacy. I had stories to share, jokes to crack, tears to release. I was a scientist, and this scientist wanted – no – actually needed to write!

But could I write? How would know if I could? Some say everybody has a novel in them. Others say that notion is an insult to writers. Either way, one thing I do know - you’ll never know if you don’t try.

So I did. And here’s how…

I went back to the grammar texts from school and completed the exercises at the end of chapters to hammer home the lesson. I relearned how to use commas, and quotation marks. I revised sentence structure, paying close attention to grammar rules and how I employed them. I went online and researched rules that confused me, though my jury is still out on the oxford comma! I curbed my enthusiasm for using exclamation marks – but only just!

Basically, I sharpened the tools I needed to be a writer - and discovered you need more than just a pencil.

Then I read. I’d always been a voracious reader, but now I started to take notice of what I liked to read and why.

I read Stephen King’s On Writing from cover to cover, not least because he has a wonderful way of writing with an engaging flow that doesn’t feel like work, but also because what he said made sense. His main take-away message, use simple language and keep your writing clear and concise, i.e don’t try to be too “writerly.”

I joined a writing group, and when that didn’t work out, I joined another and another until I found the right groups. I took in all the advice I could then carefully dropped some, like a child who sneaks unwanted food to the dog under the table. Sometimes advice is contradictory. Most times it’s just an opinion. That’s the hard part - figuring out what advice to follow and which to ignore. Go with your gut instinct, learn to trust yourself even as you self-critique.

You need to keep learning and throw away your ego. You will be wrong. Your writing will be awful. Your writing group may even laugh at you. Mine laughed at me, and I’m the better for it! Don’t give up, or at least if you do, know this, you tried and that beats wondering if you should be a writer or not.

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