Surrendering to being the writer, part 1
In which I face a lifelong struggle to accept who and what God made me to be
This is the first in a two-part essay exploring a struggle I’ve been working through over the last several years. Although, if I’m honest, it’s been a lifelong journey. But isn’t that always the case with becoming? Like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, the change is gradual, often hidden, and sometimes painful. But there is beauty to be found at the end.
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There's an old home video of me at age four, sitting on the living room floor, building a Lincoln Log house and telling a story about the people who lived inside. I was a bit of a ham, performing for my Dad as he manned the camera, but I was also a writer.
I couldn't put pen to paper yet, but I was full of stories. They overflowed when I had an audience with my parents and when I played with my brother or my friends. I gave my stuffed animals and dolls names and personalities and spent hours crafting narratives with them as the main characters.
Weekends often involved time with equally imaginative friends. We transformed houses and backyards into fantasy worlds, imagining ourselves as Pilgrims, Native Americans, or characters from books and movies. These stories made their way into school writing assignments as my earliest public attempts at fiction.
My mediums of choice for the written word shifted as I got older. I filled spiral notebooks, composition books, and steno notepads with stories and spent endless evenings tucked in the corner with my parents' boxy old Apple //c computer, turning scenes in my head into vibrant green letters on the screen and saving them to floppy discs.
High school brought late nights writing fan fiction on my own and in collaboration with online friends—a hobby that allowed me to learn skills like plotting and character development. Poetry and songs joined the mix as an outlet for turbulent teenage emotions, and whatever didn't fit in verse format overflowed into a stream of journal entries on paper and online.
And then there was the pinnacle of it all: writing camp. For one week each summer after 10th and 11th grade, I headed to a remote YMCA campus on the shore of Lake George in upstate New York to do nothing but attend writing classes, work on writing assignments, and hang out with other teenage writers. I memorialized the experience as the best thing that ever happened to me and heartily lamented its end. Even years later, I looked back on those 14 days with aching fondness and wished for a way to recapture them.
I knew writing was part of my being, something inherent in my identity. I was always capturing ideas on bits of paper and the backs of envelopes and writing snippets of dialogue in the margins of notebooks. Hardly a day went by without time spent writing something. I wanted nothing more than to see my name on the cover of a book one day: to become in the world what I already was inside.
I wanted to be the writer.
Clarity and confidence faded as adulthood arrived, and dreams of being a famous author gave way to the reality of needing to make a living wage. When I stumbled upon a website that promised payment in exchange for online content, I thought I could have the best of both worlds: write and get paid! What could be better?
Unbeknownst to me, I'd stumbled upon a content mill: the site sold content to businesses at rock-bottom prices and paid writers even less. The per-word rates were so low that I had to slog through articles all day to make ends meet. Clients bristled at paying more than five cents a word; I was blessed to find a few who would pay ten or fifteen.
After a decade of this, I didn't want to be the writer anymore. Being the writer meant being undervalued, relegated to the bottom tier, somehow less than.
I resented the idea. I wanted to be seen as more.
So when I set out to find my own clients, I was determined to be more. I threw myself into every avenue I could think of to grow my independent business: content marketing certifications, cold outreach, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Clubhouse, a professional blog, an email newsletter, and a podcast.
I worked myself silly to be seen as more than "the writer," yet that's what prospects asked for: someone to handle their blogs. And clients highlighted writing as my strong suit. But I balked at the thought of going back to a full-time gig slogging through articles. I wanted a few lucrative strategy contracts that would pay handsomely without emphasizing writing.
Deep in my heart, a root of pride bore the fruit of rebellion against the one thing I should have realized I was made for. That fruit revealed its rotten core when the contracts I had wanted so badly—and somehow, despite having little to no strategy experience, successfully landed—dried up at the end of 2021, and I found myself scrambling to scrape together enough work to cover my expenses.
But still, despite pitch after pitch falling through, I refused to be "just the writer." I kept thinking I just had to double down and find something else that could bring in big money every month. Drawing on another successful freelancer's framework, I began to pitch customer research as the foundation for good content. I updated my services to a "customer discovery" package with writing as a secondary option. And it sold—once. But most businesses I reached out to found the price tag too high or didn't need the work I proposed.
But I pressed on, driven by a desire for the six-figure income that so many freelancers boasted about online. I insisted to prospects that they hadn't done the same kind of deep dive I offered and that their content efforts wouldn't yield results without a "customer-centric" approach. I was right, to an extent, but that didn't validate my arrogance. It just meant I was right and proud.
But something unexpected happened inside me. I started to despise the content marketing status quo, the way companies chased keywords and produced repetitive, mediocre content in an attempt to get on Google's good side. I started to detest how everyone seemed beholden to search ranking and social media algorithms. It didn't seem right that "better content" was synonymous with addressing as many Google Answer Box questions as possible in one blog post.
In short, I started to hate what I was doing.
The shift was partly due to Foster, a community for online writers I joined in early 2021. Then called "Compound Writing," Foster was a place where people believed that personal stories were the future of content and that writers should share their unique perspectives rather than chase SEO "best practices."
In fact, some of them absolutely despised best practices.
I had let those very same practices paint me into a corner. I convinced myself that the writing I wanted to do wasn't worth doing because it didn't "serve my audience." I bought the lie that I had to hyper-specialize, accept only one kind of client, and suppress everything else—including the thoughts and ideas I wanted to explore, the memories I wanted to share, and the stories I wanted to tell.
This framework gave no room for words as a means of exploration or emotional catharsis. It offered no space to sit with a notebook and pen and let my thoughts flood the paper until I better understood the cacophony in my head or clarified half-formed ideas that had been bouncing around for weeks.
I didn't realize how much this lack of an outlet was affecting me until I incorporated freewriting into my daily schedule at the start of 2022. As soon as I let the words flow, I felt different: lighter and more focused. And I realized that I'd been suppressing a God-given talent in favor of chasing rabbit trails that promised—falsely—to get me where I thought I wanted to go.
Stay tuned for part 2 on February 10th, in which God shows up in unexpected ways and I strike out on a new (and scary) path.
Is there something you feel called to do, but you’re not sure you can? What’s holding you back? 👇🏻
Remarkable insights into the various labyrinthine paths and personal contortions would-be writers go through when they aim high but encounter illusory monetary and personal payoffs. It’s gotta be a really tough life trying to make a living as a writer, or more than that, make big bucks. Very few can do that, I have come to believe. And the whole writing industry is undergoing seismic changes.
I wrote for a living for years as a reporter and editor at small town newspapers. Every newspaper reporting job involves the lowest of pay, but it succeeds in drawing in talented writers because journalism types as a general rule are inquisitive, well read, and, early in their careers, highly idealistic, as I most certainly was. The last thing I thought about was my salary as long as I could pay the rent. I always had the opportunity to write a weekly column, which was my outlet for a modicum of creative expression. Later with the coming of the Internet, and after I had left the newspaper profession, I turned to an online writing community that over years became a life-affirming and totally satisfying outlet for my personal essays. The 30-50 regular readers I had, who always left highly thoughtful notes, gave me the feeling I craved of fulfillment in writing, over reaching others on a deep level. That was never possible before the Internet.
So for years I had a career separate from my writing that paid the bills. Late at night the personal essays flowed out. They still do. It’s not anything to do with money. I have a small but dedicated readership. That’s all I want. Writing some kind of bestseller seems preposterous to me. The personal essay was and always will be the only type of writing I care to do.
I look forward to delving into a Part 2 of your series on the writing life.
Well-written, Sam! Looking forward to part 2. A lot of this resonates with me as well.