Don’t Be a Writer Unless You Have to

I’m only in my first year of college when my English professor asks to see me after class. The next hour is spent staring at the clock with a pounding heart and sweaty palms. Does she think I plagiarized on the paper? How can I prove that I didn’t? Did another student steal my work? How is that even possible? My mind races back and forth from maybe she just lost my work in a stack on her desk to I’m getting expelled from the university.

Finally, after a grueling hour of pretending to pay attention, the lecture concludes and students begin packing up to leave. I slowly put things one at a time into my bag until the class clears out. Heartbeat still pounding in my ears, I walk up to the podium at the front of the room.

“Hi, Taylor,” she greets me with a smile. As I shake her hand, she continues, “thanks for taking a moment to speak with me. I wanted to touch base on the paper you submitted.”

I knew it.

“Of course. Is everything okay with it?”

“Yes,” she replies, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “More than okay. In fact, it’s rare that I read that quality of writing from students in my Western literature course.”

As I process what that means, she goes on. “What year are you?”

“Freshman,” I answer.

“You’re only in your first year and taking this class?”

It didn’t even dawn on me this was an upper-level course. I explain I came in with English credits and was simply looking for a literature course to fill my load for the semester.

“I see. So, I presume English is your major?” she asks.

“No, psychology actually!”

With pursed lips and furrowed brows, she says, “Well, I’m going to ask you something. Have you considered majoring in English? Or perhaps declaring it as a minor?”

The truth is that I didn’t consider this even though English had always been my favorite subject. I admittedly entered college with a bias against certain humanities degrees — the very areas I personally enjoyed the most — as being “throwaway” majors with limited to no job prospects. Indeed, this same bias is often applied to psychology as well.

But I don’t say any of this out loud. As I struggle with the right words to respond to her question, she must sense that I feel put on the spot and continues, “The reason I ask is that your writing and literary analysis skills are very apparent. I believe the English department would benefit from these skills and that you would benefit from what we offer.”

“Wow,” I blurt out. “Thank you so much. I’ve always loved reading and writing, so this is definitely something to consider.”

She smiles. “No pressure. I just wonder if it would be a missed opportunity. Let me know if I can answer any questions in the meantime, and keep up the good work.”

That was nearly seven years ago. Despite walking out of the room feeling relieved, elated, and empowered, I never changed my major to English. I never even declared it as a minor.

As the pride wore off over the next couple of weeks, I rationalized all the reasons not to switch majors and pursue writing. I remember telling myself: Writing can always be a part of what you do, but it can never be the whole thing. You can’t build a stable career as just a writer.

Although I didn’t realize it then, I was essentially saying to myself at that moment: Who you are and what you are meant to offer the world can be part of what you do, but it can never be the whole thing.

This is because becoming a writer would mean living a life of vulnerability, uncertainty, and risk. It would mean revealing to the world my innermost thoughts, feelings, and beliefs while these things revealed themselves to me. It would mean surrendering control of outcomes, opinions, and critiques of my personal work. As if any of us ever have control of these things.

I was a 19-year-old college student who loved writing when an English professor acknowledged my talent and believed in me. But I also was a 19-year-old college student who didn’t believe in herself. I was far too concerned with what other people thought, what the future could and couldn’t offer me, and the fear that erupted when I imagined failing in the pursuit of a career I secretly wanted since childhood.

However, I recently came across something that has since shattered these fears. Seven years later. It’s an excerpt from a devotional book by Max Lucado that my grandmother gifted me.

He writes, “As a young man I felt the call to preach. Unsure if I was correct in my reading of God’s will for me, I sought the counsel of a minister I admired. His counsel still rings true. ‘Don’t preach,’ he said, ‘unless you have to.’ As I pondered his words I found my answer: ‘I have to. If I don’t, the fire will consume me.’ What is the fire that consumes you?”

I reread this passage several times, feeling a sudden spark burst within me. It was the fire. It was the fire that had been building for years, having been continuously reignited by professors, parents, friends, colleagues. But I kept putting it out. I kept putting it out by pouring fear, anxiety, and self-doubt over the flame. Yet after reading that excerpt, I realized I can no longer keep this fire out. Why would I even want to? It is costing me too much.

So, I will pose the same question to you. What is the fire that consumes you? What keeps you up at night? What breaks your heart and inspires you to act? Pay attention to that. Please do that. Odds are the strengths others recognize in you are ones you already know you have. The world needs you. I’m a writer because I have to be. What about you?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: