I write because I can. I’d love to be a musician or a painter, but writing is the place where my urge to create and my ability intersect. I think we all have that place. For some, the trick is finding it. For others, it’s all about having the courage to live the dream.
I’ve known I was a writer since I was three. My mother entered me in a contest to name the Fizzies whale, and I won in my age group. It’s quite possible that mine was the only entry in my age group, since “Cutie Fizz” was enough to win my family a six-month supply of Fizzies tablets (root beer was the best flavor) and half a dozen turquoise plastic mugs with removable handles.
At six I had my first story on the Little People’s Page in the Sunday paper (about Hot Dog, the family dachshund, even though we had a beagle at the time — the first clue that I’d be a novelist and not a journalist) and at sixteen I had my first front page feature in the local weekly. I majored in film and creative writing in college, and fully expected that the day after graduation, I would go into labor and a brilliant novel would emerge, fully formed, like giving birth.
It didn’t happen. I guess I knew how to write, but not what to write. Looking back, I can see that I had to live my life so I’d have something to write about, and if I could give my younger self some good advice, it would be not to beat myself up for the next couple of decades.
But I did. At the same time, I pretended I wasn’t feeling terrible about not writing a novel, and did a lot of other creative things. I wrote shoe ads for an in house advertising agency for five weeks, became continuity director of a local radio station for a couple of years, taught aerobics and did some choreography, helped a friend with landscape design, wrote a few freelance magazine pieces, took some more detours. Eventually, I had two children and followed them to school as a teacher, where I taught everything from multicultural games and dance to open ocean rowing to creative writing.
Years later, when I was in my forties and sitting in my minivan outside my daughter’s swim practice at 5 AM, it hit me that I might live my whole life without ever once going after my dream of writing a novel. So, for the next six months I wrote a rough draft in the pool parking lot, and it sold to the first publisher who asked to read it.
My first novel was published when I was forty-five. At fifty, I walked the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of the movie version of my second novel, Must Love Dogs. I’m now the bestselling author of seven novels, and rarely a day goes by that I don’t take a deep breath and remind myself that this is the career I almost didn’t have.
So many readers have approached me after book events or emailed me through my website, ClaireCook.com, to share their buried dreams. They tell me that my story has been an inspiration to them. I love the idea that someone reading this right now might take a minute to think about dusting off her own dream.
I’ve learned a couple of things these last few years that I hope will help you out. The biggest one is to rise above other people’s negativity. People told me you can’t get published without connections. I didn’t know a soul. Lots more people told me the Must Love Dogs movie would never be made. Ha-ha. Long shots happen every day. Believe in them. Believe in yourself.
That being said, I think you have to do it because you love the work, not for fame or fortune, or even a movie. I sometimes hear from aspiring writers who are so focused on seeing their book on the shelves, they’re not putting the time in on the important thing — the writing. It has to be about the writing. You have to love the words, and be willing to dive back in again and again, until your book is as good as it can be. I’m grateful that I don’t have to, but I would absolutely sit at the computer all day long and write my next novel for free. Each book teaches me so much, about the characters, about the world they live in, about myself.
In one of the many gifts of midlife, I’ve also learned that I don’t have to write everybody’s books, just mine. My gift as a novelist is to make people laugh. And also to recognize themselves and their quirky families and maybe feel a little bit better about them. I play to my strengths. I understand people, so my novels are character driven. I’m a huge eavesdropper, which has taught me to write dialog that rings true. So think about who you are and what unique qualities you have that will help you write the book (or paint the painting or compose the song) that only you can write (paint, sing).
I don’t think you can be a writer unless you’re an avid, joyful reader, so if that’s your dream, read everything you can get your hands on. Somewhere in some mysterious part of your brain, a template will form, and it will help you write your own book. Seven novels in, with a draft of my eighth just finished, I still don’t really know how to write a novel. I think it’s my inner reader that saves the day every time.
I love the idea that someone reading this right now might take a minute to think about dusting off her own dream.
And my final piece of advice: pick one thing and finish it. Creative people are good at lots of things. But if you choose one and focus all your energy and creativity on it, you’ll go from good to better. I can’t tell you how many times an aspiring writer has told me about her partially completed drafts of two novels and three short stories, not to mention that screenplay, all of which she’s abandoned because she just got a great idea for a children’s book.
Been there. And still, halfway through every novel, I struggle not to jump to a “better” idea, because the grass is always so much greener in front of the book I’m not really writing. I think some of it is fear. Once you finish something, you have to put it out there and hear what the world has to say about it. That part never gets any easier. But you do it anyway, because that’s how you learn and grow, and how you get better at that place where your urge to create and your ability intersect. And even on your worst days, you’ll be lucky enough to be living your dream.
Claire Cook’s latest novel, Seven Year Switch, has received beach read shout outs from People, USA Today and The New York Times. She is the bestselling author of six other novels, including Must Love Dogs, which was adapted into a Warner Bros. movie starring Diane Lane and John Cusack, as well as The Wildwater Walking Club and Life’s a Beach. Her reinvention workshops have been featured on the Today Show, and she has been a judge for the Thurber Humor Prize and the Family Circle fiction contest. To win a beach bag filled with her books, and for more reinvention and writing tips, go to Claire Cook.com and connect with Claire on Facebook, and Twitter.
My thanks go to Claire for accepting my invitation to serve as a guest author!