When Tom Petty died early in October, a great storyteller left this world. Whether or not you are a rock and roll fan, you might have heard his songs about defiant outcasts and refugees, people looking for their place in the world. Though he was successful early, he never forgot the forgotten people he gave voice to—the rejected lovers, the people searching for freedom and finding only thin air, and those who are driven by the energy of desire.
As writers, we might sometimes feel the loneliness and challenge of writing, how the difficulty of writing well itself and the seemingly insurmountable barriers to successful publication and marketing can make us refugees from the whole thing. How many of us are scribbling away where no one sees what we’re doing—or just holding the idea of writing in our mind while we wait for the right time, the clear desk, the clear day? I suggest that we look to Tom Petty for understanding how to break out of this impasse.
Petty came from very humble beginnings, son of a working class family in Gainesville, Florida, and the target of his father’s disappointment that he was, from early on, artistic. He never backed down, though, and played his way to the top, taking musical and career risks all along the way, fighting the record companies when he had to, even fighting and winning a battle to make the cost of his records low enough for ordinary people to afford.
Running Down a Dream
Many people want to be rock stars—and many people want to write books. According to some statistics, 85% of the population wants to write a book, but only 3% will succeed.
As both a writer and a person who educates people on writing good books, I have seen the many ways in which a writing dream can crash and burn. One way is to be unclear about what you want with what you are ready to do. People who want to take the journey tend to fall into one of three categories: wishers, dreamers, and do-ers.
Wishers, as the name implies, wish they could write a good book. They have a good idea and several people have told them they should write a book about it. They love to read and wrote some good stories in high school or college. They find that writing, though hard, is also a place they feel happy, where time disappears. They enjoy doing it, but hardly ever have the time.
Dreamers are also people who love to read and have a story to tell. They have taken writing classes and they may have even gotten a degree in writing and worked with talented teachers. They have invested significantly in learning the craft of writing and the business of publishing from experts. They attend writing conferences and have a regular writing practice. They regularly submit to magazines and have a book or two in the drawer that they pitch to agents when they can.
Do-ers are those who fully commit. They know what the odds against them are and they aren’t going to be discouraged no matter what. They write every chance they get, get top expert guidance, write some more, revise, try it out on good readers, and revise some more. They have an original vision and are willing to go to any length to find the audience for it.
Room at the Top
Any of these approaches can lead to writing satisfaction, as long as the wisher, dreamer, or do-er knows what path they are on. The problem comes when the wisher expects the same results as a do-er—such as mainstream publication and commercial success. This way frustration lies.
Wishers can take a run at writing a poem, story, essay or book. They can revise it, let some people read it, and then get it into circulation with a small group of fans. For these writers, there is a copious amount of good information on the internet and many low-cost courses or free groups. Self-publishing is a natural for them and they can do that at little cost, though the product will reflect that and likely the sales as well. They might not break through to a wide audience, but they will achieve their dream and have a great deal of satisfaction.
Dreamers can get an education in writing and put it to good use. They can write, revise, test, and market. They’ll take a lot of rejection and come back for more. They may never break through to the bestseller lists, but they are determined writers who will continue to work on their craft and get their writing into the world. They may not make a living through writing alone, but supplement it through other activities, such as teaching.
Do-ers know the craft of writing and the ways of the reading public and the vicissitudes of the publishing world. They make the time, whether they have it or not, and sacrifice practically everything to their vision. They will not be denied.
Like Tom Petty, do-ers:
Know what they want
Get very, very good at it
Keep their standards very high
Work incredibly hard
Take extraordinary risks
Work only with the best people
Once they’ve found them, are very loyal
No path is easy—but is anything worthwhile in life ever easy? Humans have a practically infinite capacity to be afraid, to fear their lives and even themselves, to feel alone. Some people will use that fear against us, to create divisions. And some will try to heal the wounds, to show that we aren’t alone. These are the artists. If you sincerely want to write a book, you are one too. Like life, writing, however challenging, can be deeply rewarding.
As Tom Petty said so well, “Hey, babe, there ain’t no easy way out.”
Choose a path intelligently, a path that will bring you the most satisfaction. Once you’ve chosen your territory intelligently, do NOT back down.