Guest Post: Why Some People are Still Afraid of the ‘L’ Word by Lyndsey Ellis

I remember the first time I had the guts to tell someone I wanted to be a writer. I was a sophomore in college. At the time, my horrible grades in math weren’t enough to help me transition into one of the best journalism schools in the country. After years of ignoring a nagging inclination to go for what was then an unspeakable quest,  I took this reality as a sign that something else was in the stars and decided to visit a career counselor that could help me explore other options. It was one of the most terrifying, yet liberating, periods of my life.

The Road Less Traveled

Growing up Black in the Midwest had its joys and challenges. Unfortunately, it took me awhile to realize the lines between these extremes were blurred, if not nonexistent in many cases. Besides the obvious cultural differences, I was raised in a middle class household—one generation removed from the inner city’s cruel poverty—and, like my suburbanite classmates, expected by many to speak the language of upward mobility. To further cement our arrival into an income bracket that had long been alien to droves of underserved communities. To boldly walk on the real world’s safe side with dreams of becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a therapist. Maybe even a therapist or computer technician. Or, if I just really needed to assert a creative flair, there was always architecture or graphic design.

I have a lot of respect for the callings—not careers—just named but I’ve always felt the arts, in general, were viewed as less important. There was this unspoken agreement that it was something to be appreciated from afar, not made into a serious career path.

Writing, for that matter, was treated the worst. If you weren’t thinking about becoming a journalist or technical writer, you were wasting your time. At one time, reading may have been great, in that Pizza Hut Book It! program type of way back in grade school, but again, once you dared to dream of being on the giving end of an art form once cherishable during childhood, you were basically abnormal and thoughtless for not planning out a future that would ultimately allow you to live and eat well, raise a family, and retire.

With all this in mind, I told my freckle-faced, Abercrombie-wearing counselor that I wanted to switch my major to something that involved creative writing. Something that allowed me to color outside the lines of journalism. After this admission, I almost expected—almost wished for—her to wear a fearful expression I knew all too well, the kind that read ‘Stop, or you’ll be pitiful and poor.’

Instead, the counselor encouraged me to consider becoming an English major. She didn’t overwhelm me by talking about GREs or grad schools or MFAs or any of that on the same day. And, she sure didn’t mention the ‘L’ word, or else I most likely wouldn’t be writing this post right now.

Forget Assumptions

For many people, even aspiring authors, the word ‘literary’ still means poverty, isolation, and inaccessibility. They see a self-important, snarky writer who, like an I’m-so-smart-I’m-a-dumbass, spent almost a lifetime’s worth on a graduate degree in writing, only to be constantly asked the most hated question among writers: ‘What are you going to do with that?’

First, let’s get this straight. Not all writers in the literary arts have the same educational background or career path. Contrary to belief, it’s okay not to have an MFA, be a tenured university professor, or live in an artist-oriented coastal city. Those things are all perks, but they’re not requirements.

Sometimes literary writers take less conventional approaches and blend their craft with another livelihood (in my case, it’s mental health advocacy). Sometimes they write while financially supporting themselves with various odd jobs (in my case, it was telemarketing, personal assistantship, you name it). Sometimes they do both. So, yes, detectives, real estate agents, aircraft pilots, bus drivers and even potato chip inspectors like Octavia Butler once was, can be literary wordsmiths.

Insert Professional Development

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t intend to belittle the craft. I still believe there’s a certain quality that should be upheld and associated with literary writing. If you’re like most of us who weren’t blessed to be born as self-taught prodigies, then you know this is where residencies, writing communities, and other resources come in handy.

A longtime mentor once put it this way: successful doctors never master medicine; they practice it. Similarly, writers never ‘arrive’ anywhere because it’s essential to keep learning and cultivating our passion amidst the influx of new ideas, industry trends, and tools that make our work available to broader audiences. Bottom line: literary writing isn’t for everyone. But, neither is ventriloquism or tightrope walking.

Be Gone, Cold Feet

At a time when there’s definitely not a shortage of issues to explore, I think it’s important to demystify what it means to be a literary writer. And, if you can relate to the needless growing pains I incurred before embracing self-acceptance, I want you to know that it’s okay to say the word, to live it, and to commit.

If your heart’s in it, take the leap and your faith won’t betray you. That’s not to say the journey will be all kittens and rose petals–you’ll probably get knocked down more times than you can count and have the scars from naysayers, setbacks, and rejections letters to prove it. But, with time and the support of those who want see you thrive, the sweet in-between rewards outweigh the doubts and hardship.


LyndseyEllisLyndsey Ellis is a St. Louis native who lives and works in Oakland. She received her MFA in Writing from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, California. Ellis is a recipient of the 2016 Joseph Henry Jackson literary award from the San Francisco Foundation and was a 2016-17 finalist for the Affiliate Artist Program at Headlands Center for the Arts. She’s a VONA/Voices alumna and was a writer-in-residence at Vermont Studio Center. She’s led community writing classes at the African American Art & Culture Complex and the Mary Elizabeth Inn for Women in San Francisco, in addition to facilitating creative writing workshops at several national mental health advocacy conferences.

Ellis’s work appears in Black Fox Literary Magazine, The OffingNomadic Journal, The Stockholm Review of Literature, Heart & Soul, Monday Night, and elsewhere. She’s currently working on her first novel.

Ellis’s short story, “Opening Raynah,” appears in Black Fox Issue 13.

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