How to Become What You Want to Be
"If you want to be a writer, you have to write."
I was 16 years old when my father said those kind-and-cruel words to me. I never forgot them.
The first time I can remember wanting to be a writer, I was 11 or 12 years old. Back then, I had no idea that there was such a thing as copywriting – the kind of writing that would eventually make me a very rich man. I just wanted to be a writer. Any sort of writer.
I'd written a poem for Sister Mary Something at school. My rhyming quatrain (AABB) was titled, pretentiously, "How Do I Know the World Is Real?"
I was at the kitchen table when my father started reading it over my shoulder. I felt anxious. My father was a credentialed writer, an award-winning playwright, a Shakespearean scholar, and a teacher of literature, including poetry.
I'd seen him, on Saturday mornings, hunched over student essays, muttering and occasionally reading out loud passages to my mother that sounded perfectly good to me but elicited derisive laughter from them.
My father understood the secret-to-me clues of good writing. I didn't feel at all comfortable having my fragile young poem exposed to the awesome danger of his critical mind. So there I sat, hoping he would go away. But he didn't. I felt his hand on my shoulder, gentle and warm. "You may have a talent for writing," he said.
I wrote a lot of things in the months that followed, and began to think of myself as a writer. I liked that feeling. But soon other interests – touch football, the Junior Police Club, girls – crowded themselves into my life.
Gradually, I wrote less and less. I still yearned to be a writer and so I began to feel guilty about not writing.
To assuage my guilt, I promised myself that my other activities were "life experience," and that I needed life experience to become the good writer I wanted to be.
In developing this excuse for not writing, I was building a structure of self-deception that many people live inside when they abandon their dreams. From the outside, it looks like you are doing nothing. But from the inside, you know that you are in the process of becoming, which, you convince yourself, is the next best thing to being.
That was the shape of my delusion when my father said, "If you want to be a writer, you have to write. A writer is someone who writes."
So many people live their lives failing to become what they want to be because they can't find the time to get started. How many times have you heard someone say that, one day, they will do what they always wanted to do – travel the world or paint paintings or read the classics?
And when you hear sentiments like those, what do you feel? Happy because you are confident that one day they will accomplish their long-held goal? Or sort of sad for them because you are pretty sure they never will?
And what about you? How does this apply to your goal of becoming a successful copywriter?
I give aspiring copywriters the same advice my father gave me. "Copywriters write copy," I tell them. And by that, I'm saying two things:
- You lose the right to call yourself a copywriter when you stop writing copy.
- You can regain the title the moment you start writing copy again.
If you spend a while ruminating on this, you may find it both disturbing and liberating.
Back when I was 16 and deluding myself about becoming a writer, my father's advice was disturbing. I wanted him to say that the way to become a writer was to read books about writing and then take courses on writing and then perhaps become an apprentice to a writer and then begin writing little bits here and there. And that, finally, after 3 or 10 years of education, preparation, and qualification, I would somehow automatically be a writer.
But as long as I was studying writing or preparing myself to be a writer – and yet not actually writing – I wasn't a writer. It was as simple as that.
Lots of people feel that they can keep their dreams alive and derive some of the ego satisfaction they hope their dreams will give them simply by living in a state of becoming. "I am not yet the person I want to become, but so long as I continue to express a wish to become that person, I keep that possibility alive and deserve credit for doing so."
To become a copywriter, the first thing you have to do is refuse to accept any psychological credit for wanting to be one. After the initial disappointment of giving up the delusion that becoming is as good as being, you'll have no choice but to jump over the becoming stage and simply be.
You do that by writing copy. Every day.
The easiest way to become something special is also the fastest: Just start doing it. Don't wait for the "right" time. Don't worry about not being qualified. And don't worry about getting paid for it. Just start doing it.
You want to become a musician? Play that piano.
You want to become a basketball player? Shoot those hoops.
You want to become a copywriter? Write copy.
Don't spend another minute talking about what you will do … one day.
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