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  • Kate Forest

When Do I Become a Real Writer? or How to Find Meaning in Beatles Lyrics

I never set out to be a writer. I was a happy social worker going about my social work business thinking, “Here’s a nice career. I help people. I love getting to know people. I have the capacity to sit with another person in crisis. I am in the right place.”

Then one day, I hit a wall. She was hardly the first kid I’d worked with who told me she had been sexually abused. But she would be the last. After doing all I could short of kidnapping her, the futility of my work smacked me in the face. I understand, rationally, that I could and did help. But in that moment I had 5-alarm burnout.

I felt as if I had accomplished nothing in my life. I had spun around on the same carousel year after year. Child abuse hotline, court appearances, home visits. Nothing changed. Terrible people did horrendous things to kids. I was powerless and useless.

I had been dabbling with a story in my head and writing a few things in a spiral notebook. But as soon as I could, I committed myself to writing, taking a part-time job that was seriously less taxing than social work. When I made that commitment, I set a goal: When I became a “real” writer I would set “Paperback Writer” by the Beatles as my ringtone. I had no idea what “real” would look like, but I figured I’d see it when I got there. And that song would symbolize all my hard work and accomplishment. That I DID something. I was useful in some way.

I sold my first book to a small press. I didn’t put the ringtone on. I sold my second book. No ringtone. I got an agent. I made PAN level membership of RWA. Still no “I could make it longer if you like the style./I can change it 'round,/And I want to be a paperback writer” came through when someone called.

Then someone read my book and left a nice review on Goodreads. She read the second, and then the third. And then she sent me this message. “I love how you put young people in your books who have to deal with conditions that others couldn't handle. Your characters are always so well done. I always learn something new about people who suffer from certain illnesses. My son found out he had schizo-affective disorder when he was 21. ... he committed suicide when he was 23, he wanted to go to heaven…. I've been through a lot in my life, and that's why I love your books. I don't know of anyone else who writes about characters who deal with mental illness issues or neurological problems. I wish you great success and wish I could help you get there.”

I was never useless. I was powerful. My stories have power, and no amount of fame/fortune would make me any more of a “real” writer. Go ahead, call my phone, you’ll hear what I mean.

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