It’s mid-November and in the writing community there has been a lot of buzz around National Novel Writer’s Month (known as NaNoWriMo). The mission, for those who choose to accept, is to spend the entire month of November writing a novel, with the ultimate goal of reaching 50,000 words by month end. I’m pretty sure my career as a non-fiction author would not exist today if not for NaNoWriMo 2004.
I have always loved to write. Through school I chose creative writing classes as electives and skipped courses like art and home economics (which explains my total lack of domestic skills). For those of us who love to write, the natural conclusion often leads to chasing the dream of writing the Great American Novel.
And so I embarked on NaNoWriMo, determined to see it through. But by the end of the first week, the experience had kicked my butt. I agonized over trying to reach 50,000 words of cohesive story. I can’t recall how far I got, but everything I wrote was a disaster. That experience forced me to face the fact that I lacked the inspiration to write fiction, which at the time felt like the end of the world.
It took awhile to realize that my great fiction failure of 2004 was one of the greatest things that could have happened to me. I needed an outlet for writing and if it wasn’t going to be fiction, I had to find another option. I flashed back to all the essays I wrote in school. Those always brought my best grades. While working in the Silicon Valley, I took it upon myself to rewrite the sales documentation we were supposed to give customers. I thought I could do it better than an entire marketing department. I was once tasked with writing a three-day training course from scratch. I loved the experience so much that I showed up at work at 6AM each day because I couldn’t wait to tackle the challenge.
It became clear that my calling wasn’t telling made-up stories; it was about crafting non-fiction with the purpose of teaching. I realized that I could take complicated topics, like how to use software or how to market content online, and make them easier to understand.
It’s been seven years since I had that revelation, and my seventh book will be out this January. Aside from the personal fulfillment gained from writing non-fiction, it also launched a career I never expected. After my first book (The Business Startup Checklist and Planning Guide), I started getting invitations to speak, consulting inquiries, and media interviews. I eventually found myself running a full-time marketing business, and in 2008 I launched Authority Publishing so that I could help others bring their non-fiction books to market.
If you ever wonder if being a non-fiction writer matters in the world, take a step back and look at how much of an impact it can make. We all grew up reading textbooks (non-fiction!). When you want to learn something new, you can almost certainly find a book to show you the way. I’m in the midst of reading the biography of Steve Jobs, which proves the old adage “the truth is stranger than fiction.” It’s wildly interesting.
Though you might read fiction to escape, you usually read non-fiction to learn. My shelves are lined with books that have made a difference in my life, and the vast majority are non-fiction. My education has extended long past school. Authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Joan Didion, Steven Covey, Deepak Chopra, and Dale Carnegie each have their own unique gifts—as important in the world as any novel.
As non-fiction writers, I believe we should embrace our gifts. Most writing groups and communities cater to the fiction writers, so we need to stick together! Our work is just as important and requires just as much talent. It’s simply a different kind of talent. I will never write the Great American Novel. Letting go of that expectation freed me up to follow the path I was meant to find.
What path are you meant to travel?