It’s the question I’m asking between every full-bodied cringe when I’m sending off a finished article to my boss, ready to be edited for another issue; it’s what I’m wondering every time I feel my heart inch up a little further in my throat when I pass by thick, fresh stacks of new CityBeats ready for the world to take in every Wednesday morning.
This month marks my one-year anniversary as a member of CityBeat’s editorial staff. Fifty-two issues of convincing myself the piece I just wrote isn’t good enough, and wondering why I couldn’t have done it better.
And if there’s one thing I’ve become hyper-aware of during my time here, it’s that it’s really damn scary to be a professional writer.
Professional writer. This is what I am, I guess — a fact I’m constantly reminded of by the stack of business cards sitting by my computer.
I always imagined becoming a “professional” anything meant graduating to a sort of surety in that field. It never happened. At least, not yet.
Instead, I’ve found myself engulfed by a ticking desire to self-preserve and protect my soft, doughy shell, the one I’ve wanted to hide behind my entire life for fear of being disliked, disrespected, laughed at. For me, that means approaching every writing assignment with a riddling undercurrent of fear and the expectation I’ll be uneasy about sending the finished product off into the world no matter how much I pour into it.
It’s pretty widely accepted that creative types — the kind whose work is meant to disseminated — share a common trait: swollen, bulging egos that must constantly be nursed with attention, positive or otherwise.
This, I’ve found, is a myth. Writing, especially in journalism, as a tool in the art of self-purportment feels sacrilegious. The anxiety is exhausting, but it’s a necessary sacrifice I make for a craft that’s about so much more than making myself feel good.
People pursue careers in writing for different reasons, but I’d wager that, for most, it’s not a matter of becoming a household name. It’s certainly not about the money. To me, it’s about being a constantly shifting gear in a greater collective of people who care about our world and the things that are happening in it; the things that make it better, worse, scary, wonderful and weird.
That’s much more difficult to do in front of a crowd than one might realize.
Dad always used to tell me that if you want to become really good at something, you have to practice and practice and practice.
When writers practice, we practice for hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people to read. To dislike. To castigate. To judge.
It’s taken me every bit of 22 years and seven months to even begin coming to terms with the fact that I’ll be disliked, judged and castigated regardless of whether or not I’m a writer. I’m learning it’s worth trudging through.
When I read someone else’s work, my brain is constantly sizing up what made the writer string these words together in this order; what memories popped into their brain and where that joke came from or what author inspired the voice I’m hearing as I’m reading along. Sometimes that means interpreting the writing with envy, disillusionment, awe, bewilderment, distress, admiration.
And, to me, that’s magical. To hold the power of inflicting feeling as a writer is still terrifying, especially as one in the public eye.
As creators, writers are taught to be constantly promoting ourselves; social media makes it almost painfully simple to rack up view counts and fans. The most successful, well-known writers are the ones who morph themselves into a potent, well-defined brand; that’s not something that happens by accident. How does the wallflower come to terms with this? Do I have to?
The way we write can be either a tenuous, fragile extension of ourselves or a dogmatic, full-bodied one. I’ve experimented with both. We, as humans, all have a voice, and each is different. Mine will never be the best, and maybe I’ll never be proud of it. I don’t think I’d ever accept that if I weren’t constantly facing fear of criticism from complete strangers. Perhaps it’s that damn anxiety that keeps me practicing, practicing, practicing.
CONTACT HANNAH MCCARTNEY: firstname.lastname@example.org