Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Almost Live From the Baltimore Book Festival—Finding the Courage to Write

by Sophie Perinot

Sophie Perinot (right) with Kate Quinn
(another woman who found the courage
to pursue her writing seriously).
This past weekend I had the pleasure of being a presenting author at the Baltimore Book Festival.  Among the panels I sat on was one entitled “Finding the Courage to Write.”  Finding their courage is certainly something every book pregnant author has done—otherwise we wouldn’t be in a family way would we?  But I’d never really reflected on that fact, or what precisely it meant in my own experience until I received my list of panel assignments. What follows are the conclusions I came to while preparing my remarks for the Festival. 

When I heard title “Finding the Courage to Write” I immediately thought about how so many women writers—including myself—transition to writing from other careers or from being stay-at-home Moms.  I mean I wasn’t always a writer (were you?).  In fact, I am not even one of those people who always knew she wanted to be a writer.  I do not have stacks of journals under my bed dating to my adolescent days. I’ve always made up stories, sure (mostly for my sister’s entertainment) but when I was a little girl I dreamed of being the junior senator from Ohio, not a novelist.  Then I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer and in due course I went off to college and law school and became one. And that is when I discovered that being good at something doesn’t mean you enjoy it.  Which brings me to the courage thing. 

When people like me—those who come to writing somewhere down the line in life—talk about “Finding the Courage to Write” what we are really talking about is something bigger.  We are talking about finding the courage to REINVENT ourselves and commit, fully to that reinvention.

In my own case my sister helped me find my initial courage.  As I mentioned I was my in my dream job but it was turning out to be not-so-dreamy.  I knew I wanted to do something new, but deciding what to be when you grow up when you are already grown up is an angst filled business.  I don’t do angst without my sister (much as she doubtless wishes I would).  So I was on the phone using her as an unpaid career counselor/therapist when she said, “I know you are making up a story right now in your head.  Whatever that story is pick up your dictaphone and start saying it out loud.”  I was leaving on a family beach vacation, but I took my dictaphone along and followed my sister’s orders.  The result was my first completed manuscript.  But putting words on paper was only the first step down the road to being reincarnated as a writer—and for me it was NOT the most difficult or courageous.

What took the most guts was getting up the gumption to admit that I wanted my writing to be more than a hobby.  That it was a serious, professional endeavor.  And here is why I think that was so difficult:

1)      When you write as a hobby you don’t really have to put yourself on the line.  You can begin writing part-time, in your spare time and entirely as a hobby.  Nobody has to know you are writing.  Other than my family and a few very close friends, nobody knew I was working on that first book.  And the GLORIOUS THING ABOUT BEING AN “IN THE CLOSET” WRITER is that you cannot fail at something nobody knows you are doing.  Even if you choose to share your stories with friends or family, as I did, there isn’t much risk—if your mother or your friend doesn’t like your book she is going to be too polite to say so.  Besides chances are they will love what you’ve written because when we evaluate something created by a person we care about we are likely to see it with kind and enthusiastic eyes.
But while you can be a writer as a hobby you cannot remain a hobbyist and become a published author. So unless I wanted to just tie every manuscript up with a ribbon and put it in my linen closet I had find the courage to say out loud—first to myself, then to writers in a writing community, and finally to agents in the form of a query letter—“I want to be a professional writer and I am seeking publication for my work.”
2)     Going public with your dream opens the door to a whole lot of hurt. The big fear of course is public failure.  If you proclaim that you intend to write and publish a book and then fail . . . ouch.  Or you can have a book published and it can belly flop into oblivion. But even before you get to the edge of that cliff, the road to publication involves finding an agent and a publisher—steps that require you to show your manuscript to industry professionals.  Handing over your manuscript to strangers brings with it the inevitable sting of rejection when someone (and doubtless more than one someone too) tells you your baby isn’t good enough or isn’t marketable.
It’s a true “no guts no glory” situation.  But plucking up your courage has more to recommend it than just the long term dream of publication.  If you admit that you want to write professionally a lot of doors open.  For example, once I’d owned up to my desire for a career in writing all sorts of new opportunities for learning about the publishing industry and growing my craft presented themselves.  I attended my first writing conference, and in three days learned more about my genre and the industry than I had learned in all my blog and article reading at home.  I also joined an on-line writing community to which I still belong and where I am now a moderator.
So by gathering your courage and acknowledging your dream you not only open the door to ultimate professional achievement—a book pregnancy and many happy returns—but at the same time you improve your chances of realizing that ultimate success.
If you are out in the BP audience quietly working on manuscripts and just storing them on your hard drive I am here to tell you (with my seven-month-old book baby on my lap) that if you can find the courage to own your dream of being a writer you can reach that dream.  And I think that a reinvention worth finding the courage to take a chance on.


  1. Great post! Putting yourself out there takes tremendous courage! Other than grade school stories about horses and dogs, I wasn't always a writer. Once I decided to get serious, it took years to tell anyone outside the family. A lot of people were really surprised when they found out I had a book being published!!

  2. Like I always say, there's only one way to find out!

  3. So true. I kept writing as my dirty little secret for years.

  4. LOVED this! You've hit upon something very true. Thanks so much for sharing it with the rest of us who weren't at the festival.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing this...I'm just at the stage where I am acknowledging that I can take it seriously, even if I am not yet published. That's a hard one, because without being "officially" recognized, it's hard to call yourself a writer.

    Thanks again for the inspiration!

    1. It IS "a hard one." I honestly think it was the hardest step of all for me. Yes, even harder than getting that first rejection letter in response to a query letter.

  6. I think most of us who are writers were always writers. We may not have admitted it. I still remember in the 5th grade when we had to go around the class and announce our future professions. When I said, "Writer," my face flamed red and I looked down at the desk. I was so embarrassed that I'd admitted it. What makes us think that being a writer is beyond us or something to be ashamed of? Of course, being a successful writer is nothing to be ashamed of. Congrats on your book.

  7. Nice post. I too was a long-closeted writer--maybe I'm in the minority these days but I do have boxes and boxes of journals from when I was 12 :-)

  8. I attended your talk on Women's fiction and am planning to write a post about it on my blog! I would love to include some of the wonderful definitions of women's fiction. What was your definition?

    1. Susan, I am actually doing a guest post on Monday at "In the Hammock" blog on that panel and it will included not only my definition but Lisa Verge Higgins and the RWA ones as well. So that would be a great reference for you. My own definition is:
      Women’s fiction is fiction in which (1) a female main character (2) confronts issues, relationships and/or situations that have a certain universality to women throughout the ages and (3) through her own actions, resolves or at least come out on the other side of those issues having grown.

  9. The Book Festival was a lot of fun too!
    Apparently I misspelled my email address... whoops!