Up until November 18th, 2010, my creative life was a quiet one. Very quiet. Well, practically non-existent to the naked eye. Besides my immediate family, nobody knew I dreamed of one day being a published author. I always wrote in the privacy of my bedroom; I saved my manuscripts under names like “Comparative Politics Study Guide 2” (no joke); and I never–ever–shared my stories or ideas with anyone. I was too scared, too shy. Worse, I was ashamed.
How could I declare to the world I wanted to be a writer? Me? What right did I have? I didn’t even have an English or writing degree. I majored in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing, and that just didn’t count in the land of make believe. I knew–just knew–if I told people the truth, I’d be mocked and ridiculed. Everyone would judge me–laugh at me–tell me I was a wannabe that needed to go back to school and get the proper credentials.
I knew it.
So I kept my mouth shut, my head down, and my writing dreams hidden. For. Years! Even after I landed a job as a copywriter at a Denver ad agency, I didn’t tell people about my creative aspirations.
Then on a sunny November morning I walked into work and everything changed. (Dun, dun dun…)
I grabbed a coffee, said “Hey” to a co-worker I only ever said “Hey” to, and sat down at my desk. Thirty minutes later, the computer systems unexpectedly crashed. With nothing else to do but look at a black screen, I swiveled around in my chair to chat with my co-workers…Well, co-worker. Mr. “Hey” was the only one there. I cringed and almost swiveled right back around, but then stopped. Why not talk to him? We’d only been working ten feet apart from each other for six months. It was about time I got to know him better. So, we started talking. For awhile, our conversation revolved around normal stuff (the weather, our jobs, our co-workers).
Then out of the blue, Mr. “Hey” asked me, “Jenna, what do you do?”
I stared at him blankly. “What do I do?” What the heck did that mean?
He grinned. “I mean what do you do as a writer? What are your goals? I doubt you want to work here the rest of your life, right?”
I glanced around nervously. The building was still empty. Our bosses weren’t in yet. Nobody was. It was just me and him. I swallowed hard, unsure how to respond. This was the first time anyone had ever asked me that question. And it was the last one I wanted to answer. What if he judged me–laughed at me–told me I was a loser wannabe?
“I want to write books!” I blurted out before my lifelong fears could stifle me. “I want to be an author.”
To my surprise, he didn’t judge or laugh at me. And he didn’t call me a wannabe loser. Actually, he looked impressed.
Rather than feeling pleased about this, I felt weird, like an impostor. Mr. “Hey” didn’t know I wasn’t qualified to claim such a lofty ambition. He didn’t know I lacked an English degree. He didn’t know I had zero writing experience. He didn’t even know the only reason I’d been offered a writing gig at our company was because my resume included a summer internship at a prestigious advertising firm (and that internship had been in the account management department).
But, before I could confess any of this to him, Mr. “Hey” began pummeling me with questions: What types of books do you like to write? What genre? Have you ever written a book before? If so, what’s it about? I was so overwhelmed by his creative interrogation, I ended up answering him honestly.
“I’m working on a young adult manuscript,” I said.
He nodded thoughtfully. “That’s cool.” Cool. AKA, dumb. AKA, loser.
To hide my shame, I smiled and swiveled back around to face my computer. The screen was lit up. Relief coursed through me. Our systems were up and running again. I didn’t need to talk to Mr. “Hey” anymore. Our embarrassing conversation was over. I could now scurry back into my safe little writer’s closet and hide once again. Yet, as I opened my files and documents to start working, an inner voice said, “Be brave! Tell him about your story. Don’t hold back now.”
I spun back around. “My story is about…” and I gave him the one line synopsis.
His eyes went HUGE! I couldn’t tell if he was shocked? Confused? Amazed? Trying to refrain from bursting into hysterical laughter? Before I could figure out his wide-eyed expression, he leaned forward.
“Would you mind if I introduced you to a PR exec in Hollywood?”
So, come to find out Mr. “Hey” was an up and coming screenwriter and he’d recently acquired representation in L.A. He had kept his starry success a secret because he was afraid everyone would clobber him–ask him for advice, listen to their pitch, help them find representation too, etc. But he didn’t want to help anyone unless their idea was worth helping. And, I guess in his eyes, my idea was.
Suffice it to say, I was stunned and, obviously, excited. But, more than anything, I was guilt-ridden. I couldn’t let this conversation go on until I confessed the brutal truth to my new bestie: I wasn’t a qualified writer. I didn’t have the right degree. I didn’t know what I was doing! You know what his response was?
Huh? So what? So what? No. I couldn’t accept his indifferent response. I couldn’t! Not when I’d always believed I had to have the correct credentials to join the official writer’s club. So–in a voice that flirted with desperation–I said, “But, trust me, I read. A lot! I’ve studied how it’s done!” (Yes, I actually spoke these words…*throat clear*)
Mr. “Hey” shrugged. “Well, you know what they say: the best readers are the best writers.” No, I didn’t know people said that, but I was happy to hear it, because I was the best reader in the world!
With my guilty conscience appeased, I gave Mr. “Hey” the green light to introduce me to his high-powered friends in L.A. And he did. By the next evening, I was on the phone with a PR executive reminiscent of Ari Gold.
(Two words to describe that 45-minute call: Heart. Attack.).
A few days later, I was on the phone again, this time with a big wig agent who’d represented writers like Nora Ephron—Nora Ephron, for God’s sake. With no idea how I’d landed in the midst of such an elite group of professionals, I agreed to talk next to a producer based on Paramount Studios. That call led to a two-year option contract. (Meaning this producer had the right to make my story into a movie; but I made sure part of the deal was my manuscript had to get published first).
As you might imagine, my blood pressure was through the roof during this entire process. I felt like an adrenaline junkie; like I’d been set on fire and bungee jumped off of the world’s tallest bridge straight into an ocean of great white sharks. AHHHH!
Okay, let’s stop and rewind for a second, back to these phone calls I had.
During each of these petrifying conversations, I always did my best to play it cool and act like I belonged; like I totally deserved to be on the phone with these hotshots and I wasn’t at all scared to be speaking with them. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t silence my closet writer shame. I had to tell each of these men the truth, just like I did with Mr. “Hey”. After every pitch I gave, I always tacked on this quiet disclaimer: “Just so you know, I don’t have an English degree or anything like that.” Or, in other words, “I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m not technically qualified to be talking to you.”
You want to know their answers? Laughter! Followed by some version of, “I don’t care. What matters is you can write and you have ideas.”
I couldn’t believe it. All of this time…All of my fears…All of my shame. It was worthless! Unnecessary. I’d been hiding in a dark writer’s closet for no good reason. My hopes and dreams were acceptable. Accepted. I didn’t need to have an English degree to prove myself. As long as “the proof was in the pudding,” I’d be good to go.
Alas, in the end, my optioned manuscript never went anywhere. It’s how the business cookie crumbles. Some projects fly, many flounder. However, I don’t regret a second of my roller coaster journey. Not. At. All! How could I? Not only did I receive valuable industry experience and in-depth feedback from multiple professionals in L.A. and New York (including extensive critiques from an agent at Writers House), but I received validation.
I am a writer.
I. Am. A. Writer.
It doesn’t matter I don’t have a degree in a writing field. It doesn’t matter I’ve basically taught myself “how it’s done.” If I have the passion, the skill, the ideas, and the determination, I can do this. I can write! And, yeah, perhaps this manuscript didn’t take flight the way I’d hoped, but I’m confident it will someday. More importantly, I’m 100% confident I’ll never–ever–again hide in my shameful writer’s closet. That door is locked and bolted. I couldn’t get back in even if I wanted.
So, listen, I didn’t write this confession today to tell you I think English and writing degrees are worthless. Heck no! Trust me, I still wish I had that beautiful credential on my resume. Why wouldn’t I? Knowledge equals power, right?
What I am saying is that if you want to be a writer, don’t let anything hold you back. Not your lack of education, not your fear, not your shame, and definitely not that cruel inner voice, the one that whispers, “You can’t be a writer.” Believe me, you can. And you deserve to pursue your writing dream. Whether that’s as a novelist, a poet, a screenwriter, a journalist, a copywriter…whatever! If you want it, you go for it.
So go! Shout out and tell the whole wide world you’re a writer and you’re proud of it. You may as well. You never know who’ll be listening. I surely didn’t when I walked into work that November morning.