Dear Unpublished Writer,
When you started writing, you happily proclaimed yourself to be a writer. After all, that’s what everyone told you to do: own it. Claim it. And so you did, certain that you would publish any day.
But years have gone by…and you haven’t published yet. When you meet people and they ask you what you do, you dread the answer, no longer so willing to claim the title of “writer” because you know what comes next: “Are you published?”
To which you always answer sheepishly: “It takes a long time. I’ve got things in the pipeline.”
Invariably, the person you’ve just met will turn away, no longer interested. Or at least that’s your perception. You begin to think of yourself not as WRITER, but as UNPUBLISHED writer, a synonym for LOSER.
Does any of this sound familiar?
If so, allow me the privilege of re-branding you. Unpublished Writer, I hereby title you APPRENTICE. You are serving your apprenticeship. You are not in purgatory. You are not a loser. You are right where you’re supposed to be.
I think I first heard this term applied to writers by Martine Leavitt. I was
whining about discussing my writing and she simply noted that I was serving my apprenticeship.
One of my characters is a medieval apprentice, so I’ve done plenty of research on apprenticeships. In medieval times, an apprentice performed low-level tasks while observing their masters and gradually learning the skills of the trade, usually for a period of seven years.
Seven years, my friends. Seven years of chopping wood, stoking the fire, grinding pigment, sharpening knives. Seven years of labor.
This April marked my seventh year writing seriously. Seven years of character development, reading, plot structure, narrative arc, voice, point of view, conflict, scene, backstory, pacing, dialogue, butt-in-chair, conferences, and emotional ups and downs. Seven years of labor (but with better plumbing, better nutrition, and fewer fleas than medieval apprentices). It’s been quite a journey. It hasn’t been easy, but I value it more than I can say.
Though my apprenticeship isn’t over yet, experience has taught me a few things about making the period of apprenticeship easier:
- Recognize your apprenticeship. Call a spade, a spade. Sometimes the act of naming something gives you control over it. If it helps, write the word APPRENTICE on your bathroom mirror in soap, so every morning and every night you’ll be reminded. Stick post-it notes to your steering wheel (The Apprentice Mobile). When you order a fancy hot beverage du jour ask the barista to put an “A” in cream on top (no, not the Hester Prynne letter A). Drink your apprenticeship in. Recognize that you are a writer-in-process.
- Serve your apprenticeship. It’s ok to be in the process. You may desire overnight success — our society primes people for instant gratification — but appearances are deceiving: what may look like an overnight success for a writer might hide years and years of hard work. There’s no cheating–an apprenticeship must be served, regardless of whether it is public or private. Ars longa, vita breva, or as Geoffrey Chaucer said, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” Trust the process. Take the time to learn the craft of writing in an integrated way.
- Honor your apprenticeship. Be grateful for those who have helped you along the way, then pay it forward. There are so many opportunities to learn the craft of writing, in part because the children’s writing community is so generous. Respect the things you have learned, and teach them to someone else who is an apprentice.
Go forward and create, Apprentice, until you become Master.