Emily Gilman

Making Stuff Up and Writing It Down Since (Before) I Learned How to Write

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On Being a Real Writer

(I’m not sure where I’m going with this blog more generally, but here’s something while I continue to think about that. And I didn’t put “real” in quotes, but feel free to imagine them there if you want.)

When I was a teenager (and I think continuing into college, maybe even grad school) I thought of myself as a real writer. I was serious not just about writing but about revising my work! I submitted stories to professional magazines! I hadn’t been published yet, but I was young and inexperienced and that was to be expected. But I was a real writer, or I was going to be, and certainly compared to most teenagers that was a fair self-assessment.

Then I went to grad school. And then I started working in a public school. And for years, either I didn’t write or the things I wrote fundamentally didn’t work. (I can think of at least three stories I finished and then looked at them and thought, “Yep, that can’t be fixed,” though the realization took longer in some cases than in others.)

That’s not to say I didn’t publish. All the stories I’ve published came out after college, and the last one, “The Castle That Jack Built,” came out after I’d started teaching.

But I’d written the first drafts of all of them in college. And nothing I’d written since college worked. And somewhere along the way I stopped thinking of myself as a real writer, because I was barely writing and had nothing to submit places, let alone anything being published, and can you really be a real writer if you don’t have anything to show for it?


Almost three weeks ago I finished the latest draft of the story I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. It’s still not done, and honestly I’m getting pretty sick of it not being done, but each draft is still objectively better than its predecessor and I’ve sent it to a bunch of smart people to read and hopefully they’ll help me figure out what still needs doing. Certainly this draft feels like Progress.

A week and a half ago I was at a bar with friends, including (unexpectedly) some writer friends, and I realized that for the first time in I wasn’t sure how long I felt like a real writer again. I had a story that was, if not ready to submit places, certainly approaching that point. I had multiple other projects to move on to next. I was out at a bar talking with other writers about writer stuff.

It was a huge relief, in the way that publishing my first story was a huge relief. Then it was, “Okay, I’ve been saying for years that I would do this, and now I’ve done it.” Now it was, “Okay, that whole not-writing thing really was a phase because grad school and teaching and figuring out adulting took up too much of my brain.” In both cases I’d validated my self-perception.


If you asked high school me what it meant to be a real writer, I think she would’ve said it’s about being published, or at least writing stories of good enough quality to be publishable. If you ask me now . . . I’m not sure I know. It’s partly about publishing, yes, or the quality of the work, but I think at least for me it’s also about the doing. I didn’t feel like a real writer because, at the end of the day, I wasn’t writing. It was hard when story after story failed because I only had the one project in my head at a time; I didn’t have anything I could point to as coming up next if this didn’t work out.

I can have a writerly conversation about a work in progress regardless of whether that work ends up published or not. I can’t really have a writerly conversation about the fact that I’ve been spending all of my free time crocheting and watching Netflix. (I can have a conversation with writers about that, absolutely, but those conversations aren’t generally writerly, at least not in my experience.)


There’s a part of me that worries that it’s so much harder to make time for writing now than it was in high school because I’m happier now. Happier is a good thing! I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But it means that I have to make the time, that reading and writing are no longer my default activities, because now I have Netflix, and now I have friends nearby and a car to get to them, and now I have too little free time instead of too much.

I’m still working out what to do about that.

I’ve added reading/writing to my Dailies on Habitica, because I’ve realized that I feel so much better if I’ve done at least some reading or writing every day. That helps somewhat. I’ve also just set myself a NaNoWriMo-adjacent challenge: since I have about 15k words of the novel-thing from last year, I’m going to try to get that up to 20k by the end of October and then 40k by the end of November. That still won’t be a whole novel, but it’ll be a big chunk of writing, and I think those goals are manageable enough that I can keep with them. (I chose 20k on the grounds that that’s 1k a day not including weekends or holidays, so I don’t have to feel guilty about spending time with friends/family.)

We’ll see how it goes. It’s hard to want to do a million things that all really work better if you can do them daily and know that that’s just not feasible, that I have to pick and choose or rotate them or something. But I think this one is important, and I need to treat it like it’s important, and rotate the others.