So You Want to be a Writer: A Personal Take on Practicing the Craft

This is an essay by Callie R. Feyen.

A few months after my husband and I brought our beautiful baby girl home from the hospital, we were at a family gathering showing off her blue eyes and long lashes in between sips of coffee and bites of cookies. As friends and relatives took turns holding Hadley, and rubbing her belly in an attempt to win a giggle, one man, I’ll call him Josh, asked me, “So what do you do all day?”

I didn’t interpret the question as a challenge, though I was severely sleep deprived and didn’t have all my wits about me. I told Josh that Hadley and I went to play dates, ran errands, and spent time at the library together. “And when she goes down for a nap,” I continued, “I write.”

Josh laughed. Sleep deprived or not, I understood enough from his body language and the look on his face that he thought I was wasting my time.  “Well,” he said as he prepared to leave, “that’s nice to have a hobby before you go back to work.”

Standing in Josh’s wake in my uncomfortable dress and too high heels, I stared at the space he stood in seconds ago. It bulged with my very real fear that I would never be a writer, that what I did while Hadley napped was in fact, only a hobby.

My fear regarding writing is not ridiculous, but I don’t have to stare at it. I can give it a nod, but then turn around and go another direction. I chose to turn around after speaking with Josh, despite my fear that my writing would never be more than a hobby. I tried to keep writing.  Here’s how I did it:

I took a lot of classes. I live near the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and I take advantage of the variety of classes it offers. Classes help keep me accountable, generate ideas, and share my writing with others. I have also taken online courses which are nice because I can complete them on my own schedule. I love the GlenOnline Workshops because they are set up so you work one-on-one with an instructor.

I read books on writing. I love books that combine good stories, instruction, and suggested exercises. That way I am immersing myself in a captivating tale, getting a chance to study it, and trying my hand at a topic of choice. Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola is one of the best books on how to write well. It focuses on Creative Nonfiction, but any writer can gain wisdom and skill from studying it.  Other books I use frequently are A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves, The Observation Deck: A Tool Kit for Writers by Naomi Epel, and The Concise Guide to Writing by Rise B. Axelrod and Charles R. Cooper.

I joined a writer’s group. My group of six meets once a month for about three hours.  The week previous to meeting, we send each other our work so everyone has a chance to read it.  We all get written feedback, but three of us get our pieces work-shopped each time we meet.  We find that discussing three people’s writing in detail allows enough time to go in-depth with each piece.

It wasn’t easy finding a group of peers to share my work with, but it was worth the time and effort.  I have been stretched and have grown tremendously since sharing my work with the group of writers I now call my friends.

I set up a routine and a space for myself. I have never been a full-time writer, and I don’t anticipate that ever being the case.  However, I have worked my days out carefully so that I have time and space to practice my writing.

First, I always carry a notebook and pen around with me so I can jot down observations. Lots of times ideas for essays I’m working on come to me when I’m driving or at the park with my kids. It’s nice to be able to throw some words on paper when this happens.

Second, I set aside what I can during the week for writing. Currently, I write three days a week for three hours and 45 minutes every night after our daughters go to sleep. I write “currently” because our schedule changes depending on whether the kids are in school, or if we can afford a babysitter, or if I am simply too tired to write one evening.  However, I try and sit down at the beginning of each week and see where there will be times for me to write.

Third, I have an idea of what I’ll write about so that when I sit down I don’t waste time thinking up a topic. I like to begin with a prompt to warm up, then I look at the essay or story I’m working on.

Fourth, I set up a space where I keep my writing.  I share a two bedroom condo with my family of four so space is tight.  However, I have a lovely spot next to a window with a desk, my favorite writing books, pens, paper, and computer.  Having a space to go to saves time and allows me to step into my writing immediately.

Almost six years have passed since I stood talking to Josh, and when I think about our small conversation that left a huge impact on me, I still get upset at how stupid I felt after I told him about my dream. The memory of his laughter still makes me grimace. Still, it’s not enough to make me stop trying to write.

I think Hadley, who is now 5, is also beginning to understand that finding something you love to do is both filled with joy and fear. She came home from school one day complaining because she wasn’t the fastest kid in her class.

“I can’t fun fast so I just won’t run.”

“You can’t run fast yet.” I told her.  “You might run fast someday.”

“What if I never run fast?”

“Well, that might happen. But there are things you can do, like sing, and dance, and jump rope, and play soccer. Everybody’s good at something. Everybody has a talent.”

“Like your writing, Mama? Is that your talent?”

I smiled and said, “I’m working on it.”

I never told Hadley I want to be a writer, but she sees me with paper, scratching down ideas, or underlining sentences in books. And I knew Hadley wanted to be fast before she told me.  I see the look of determination on her face as she runs. Fists clenched, lips scrunched together, eyebrows furrowed.  I know she wants to win, and I know she loves to run.  I also know that when she’s in the middle of a race, when her breath is short and she pumps her arms in an effort to gain speed, that she is happy. That will be enough for her to run again. The same is true for me and my writing.

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Callie Feyen lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and two daughters.  She is a graduate student working on her MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Christian Home and School, The Banner, and Christian School Teacher. Visit her at http://www.calliefeyen.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by taiyofj.

24 Replies to “So You Want to be a Writer: A Personal Take on Practicing the Craft”

  1. My mom wrote her novel just the way you are working. She was a SAHM – that in itself is worth at least two full-time jobs. A couple of evenings a week she would go up to her bedroom to write. We all knew that was her time and to leave her alone. Although she has passed away now, her novel lives on for all who want to read it.

    Hope that inspires you to keep on writing!

  2. Ruth, thank you so much for sharing the inspiring example of your mother. I agree, the SAHM job is at least two jobs! 🙂 What is the title of her novel? I’d love to read it.

  3. I applaud your diligence and attitude to not give up writing. I recently “established” my writing time in order to deal with the successes that I am beginning to realize as a writer who must work 8-5 x5 to pay the bills. By scheduling into my weekend at least one 4 hour stint for writing, I have in 2 months realized the completion of a couple of articles, hooked 2 publishing companies on the idea of a lab manual for veterinary technicians. Additionally I have begun to explore other writing alternatives not thought of before such as being a guest blogger for “Read, Write, Learn”. The best part of this “scheduling” is the fact that after about 2 weeks, one day turned into 2 as the family and household made room for my 4 hour stints. So while the musicians say “rock on”, I say “write on” as I reach for a pen….
    Oreta Samples

    1. Congratulations, Oreta! Not just on your success with completed pieces, but with coming up with a schedule that works for you. I find it’s hardest to just start and not listen to the negative voices. “Write on” indeed!

  4. Bravo on your focus and perseverance, Callie. I think non-writers have a very skewed perception of what it takes to hone one’s craft, to find markets and to continuously come up with ideas to write about.Parents and peers tend to discourage or diminutize writing as a “serious” pursuit, typically because they couldn’t ever imagine doing it themselves. I can certainly relate to the remarks about writing being a hobby or just something to fill up the time until gainful employment is acquired. I’ve been a professional author for decades and have a lengthy string of credits to show for it and yet invariably I’ll cross paths with old friends who inquire, “So are you still doing that writing thing?” Good grief. When was I ever NOT writing? It’s what writers do.

    1. “…because they couldn’t ever imagine doing it themselves.” Good point, Christina. And in “Josh’s” defense, I think that might have been where he was coming from when he said what he said. Although, it was still a snarky thing to say. 🙂 Congratulations on your career as an author, and sticking with “that writing thing.” 🙂

  5. Callie, you are a wonderful writer and an inspiration to me, as well as your daughter. I’m sorry Josh said that to you. It must have been a defining moment but goodfor you for letting it fuel (not squash) your dream.

  6. What an inspiring post. I’m sure Josh forgot that exchange minutes after it occurred, but you found a way to give you the motivation you need to get where you are now, and where you are now is positioned to go even farther.

    You mention the word “talent” in the exchange with Hadley. I suspect there are many people with writing talent. The ones we end up reading are the ones who recognize that writing is a craft, and work to move beyond pure talent to the point where they are skilled. Everything you list–taking classes, reading books, joining a writer’s group, managing your schedule–are steps someone who is serious about their craft takes. Maybe Hadley is a talented runner; maybe not. But talent is only the beginning.

    1. Good point, Patrick. “Talent is only the beginning.” And whether or not Hadley and I are talented in what it is we are passionate about, I hope that we both find great pleasure in practicing the skills of that particular craft. It is hard. It is scary. But there is joy, too. I hope both my daughters learn this.

  7. I think everyone who commented before me has got it covered. but persistence and practice are reward in themselves so enjoy the process. I do.

  8. Thanks for sharing your story. We need to support and inspire each other in order to continue pursuing our dreams. I enjoyed reading your post and how you organize your writing life.
    Karen

  9. Great story! I get asked what I do for a living and get similar experiences like you did with Josh when I tell them I am a writer. Inevitably most shake their head and then ask what my background or skill set is so that they can be on the lookout for me. I just smile and pray that self-doubt doesn’t creep back in. It is hard to convey to another a deep and abiding love for words verbally. They must be read in order to display the magic. Keep it up!

  10. Great post! People don’t understand that when it comes to work, and dreams, they owe other people the respect the would demand. It’s just that simple. If it’s not acceptable to laugh at someone’s boring day job, it’s not acceptable to sneer at someone trying to make it as a writer or an artist, no matter who thinks what is or isn’t a serious profession. Glad to hear you didn’t let one snarky comment get you down. Too many people don’t realize how hard it is to write and share part of yourself with the world.

  11. I too am a mom who writes during nap time and after the kiddos are all tucked in for the night. And I’ve been asked when I’m going back to work again.
    Sometimes it’s nice to “talk” (even if only online) to individuals who see the value in both of my current “jobs,” parenting and writing.

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