Recently, in the space of three days, two different people said to me – in the course of an otherwise unexceptional conversation, apropos of nothing – that they had dreams of being a writer. Both of them are in their fifties, which meant they’ve been doing something else for the better part of three decades (but hey, no one remains with the same company anymore, so why stick with the same profession?).

Those of you who are writers probably know what came next: the questions. Those questions. The exact wording varies, but the gist is always the same. How do you get started? Do you have to go to school? How do you decide what to write about? Why are there no people of color on “Game of Thrones”(trick question, just to see if you were paying attention)? Essentially, these are all like strands in a child’s drawing of the sun — leading back to the center, to the more basic question: “Can anybody do it?”

In a way, I find this kind of flattering. Most people don’t get those kinds of queries, after all. You know what you have to do to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an athlete or an actor. You know what’s involved in working in someone else’s business or starting your own. The path is clear, the signs along the way well-marked.

Writing, on the other hand – professional writing, that is, as opposed to composing an e-mail or a grocery list – is shrouded in a kind of cosmic mystery. Everyone realizes that it’s not just a matter of scratching letters on a sheet of paper, or tapping the keys in a certain order. But what else? Writers themselves are no help; they’re happy to talk about their work routine (“I get up every morning at five, drink a few shots of vodka, play two tennis matches and then sit down at the computer”) but rarely if ever about the actual work process, and only infrequently about what made them decide to get into this crazy business in the first place.

So what does it take to write professionally? Can any idiot do it?

The best answer I can give is that there is no answer – no single answer, that is, that could be applied to every writer in every time and place.

We all start from the same point: learning a language – its rules and standards, formalities and slang; how to use it to present basic facts, to embellish and add color, to convey our happiness, sadness, anger. We “practice” every day, on school assignments, letters/e-mails, birthday cards, Post-Its. And unless there is a baby or someone else who can’t easily communicate in our lives, we come to take it all for granted.  We don’t think about how we form our words any more than we consider how we tie our shoes – we just do it.

But some people go a step further. They see how words, sentences, paragraphs can be strung together for grander purposes: to tell a story, make an argument, describe an experience or a person. Something in their lives compels them to do the same. Maybe they’ve lived through a horrific experience (war, forced migration, an abusive childhood) and are obsessed with telling the world what they saw and felt. Maybe they enjoy reading or listening to other people’s stories and decide to make up their own. Maybe they want to recount the past or describe the present of their city, region or country. (Carlos Fuentes  was inspired by hearing his grandmothers’ tales of old Mexico; “my two grannies,” he said, “[were] the two authors of my books, really.”) In my case, I was pissed off – at my parents, my teachers, my government, the world – and saw writing as a way of exposing the shallowness, hypocrisy and false values that I found all around me, and blah blah blah (yes, I was a teenager).

And if you turn out to be one of those people, what then?

Then you write whenever, wherever you can. You jot down notes, ideas, lines of dialogue, character sketches, and file them away for future use. You might start with short stories or poetry or essays, or jump right in with a novel or play. Often you take courses, either at college or grad school or on your own, not to learn how to write – remember, you already know that – but to get an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. You familiarize yourself with different styles, borrowing (o.k., stealing) just enough to escape detection. Slowly, gradually, you settle on the style – the voice – with which you’re most comfortable.

Then the real fun starts: making a living. Again, one size absolutely does not fit all.  Some people take “writing jobs” – journalist, teacher, copywriter. Often these become their primary careers, whether or not they do other kinds of writing on the side, and there’s no shame in that. Others go into fields that have nothing whatever to do with what they love; they learn to carve out time to write on lunch breaks, evenings, weekends, etc.  And some get by on temp jobs, or grants, or loans from friends or relatives. I make no judgment on any of these strategies, having tried them all. Whatever works.

Meanwhile, you search for people to look at your writing, and to pay you for it. And search, and search.  I won’t bore you with what we did in the pre-Web era; suffice it to say that it involved dead cats, voodoo dolls and incantations in Latin. The point is that now there is no excuse for not searching, not when you can click your way to lists of agents, editors, publishers, magazines, newspapers, academic journals, etc. Then, of course, all you have to do is determine which of these are scams, dead ends or a bad match for you.

Well, not all. There remains one more hump to get over – the King Kong, the Godzilla, the Moby-Dick of humps, really. It takes the form of a neat, polite e-mail or letter with some version of the following message: “This just isn’t for us. But thanks for thinking of us, and good luck in the future.”

The first time this happens, you’ll probably howl with pain, for you cannot avoid that knife-in-the-gut feeling. You will also have a sense of bewilderment – “How could they not like it? Can’t they appreciate the time and effort, love and skill that went into its crafting?” After a few more such rejections, you learn to deal with it; you have to. Hopefully a few of the rejectors are kind enough to mention what they thought was lacking, the areas that could be improved. If several of them harp on the same thing, you can safely assume they’re worth taking seriously. So you fix what needs to be fixed.

And you keep going. You become your own toughest, most cold-blooded editor, cutting out that wonderful description or dialogue exchange if it doesn’t serve the overall story. You try to find a subject that no one else has really covered, or a theme that no one has dealt with in quite the same way. You join online or in-person groups, attend conferences, locate that friend of an acquaintance of an ex-roommate who is rumored to be in publishing… network, network, NETWORK. You do whatever you can in the service of two goals: to make your writing as clean, fresh and compelling as possible, and to get it in front of anyone who can possibly help you.

Having done all this – guess what? There is still no guarantee that you will have any success – that’s “success” as in “making a steady living from your writing.” That is what separates the pro from the amateur. So ten people buying your self-published book on Amazon, or several hundred reading your blog, doesn’t count. You must see the dinero on a regular basis.

And even if you do, that’s not the same as being a Major Author, the kind whose name becomes a noun – “I’m reading the latest ____________ right now.” You may just become a perfectly respectable working writer, churning out your articles or your books or your screenplays or your rhymed couplets year after year.

Which is perfectly fine. Because you’ve reached the point where it’s not about the fame, or the money, or getting out your Important Message. It’s just something that you have to do, something you can’t imagine not doing.

And the good news: you can keep doing it long after your friends have stopped being accountants or dentists or management consultants or whatever. You can do it as long as your brain and fingers are in good working order. “Writer’s don’t retire,” declared Andy Rooney, a few weeks before his death.

If you get to that point, then we can truly say: Welcome to the club, you beautiful idiot.