When it is truly time
and if you have been chosen it will do it by
itself and keep doing it
until you die or it dies in you
there is no other way
and there never was ~Bukowski
(Read the rest of it here).
So you want to be a writer. Allow me to snicker for a second. Not at you. At what you think of writing and the grimy REALITY of writing professionally, commercially or even creatively.
Many people want to be writers because of that glorious moment when they’ll trumpet to their parents, their friends or to whomever:
“I am a writer.”
You’ll be awash in admiration. You get to be the person behind the table at a book signing, the center of attention surrounded by a crowd wearing skinny ties and vanity glasses and people who sip glasses of red wine, lamenting on the latest best seller.
That moment is rare. And I will probably never experience it.
But I don’t write for that moment.
I write for the moment in the middle of the night, when something in me stirs – an idea. When it feels as if the brain is plugged directly into my imagination and I get the experience down beautifully. When I am not thinking, when I am half-lucid and my fingers are flying.
I can sit there for hours this way.
But Writers Never Feel Like Writers
You picture the writing life as something like this. A fancy literary event with cocktails. But most of the time I work alone in sweats.
Even writers with a capital W probably don’t feel like they can call themselves writers. I say probably because I am a writer with a lowercase “W”.
I have had one poem published in a chapbook (and subsequentally, a community newspaper) and a whole lotta paragraphs published in a travel guide, and a bunch of other blogs, newspaper articles, etc. I even won an award for an article I wrote on bees of all things.
I still hesitate when that damn What Do You Do? question comes up. I decided I am going to start calling myself a carpenter. It’s artistic, Jesus did it, and women carpenters are pretty rare. And that’s cool.
Even with a six-year writing career and minor accomplishments, I still feel like a fraud. Like I can’t possibly belong to the same art form as Bishop and Vonnegut and Dave Eggers. I don’t want people to assume that by calling myself a writer I think am at that level.
Side note: I wonder if Dave Eggers feels like he can call himself a writer? When do people reach that level?
What the Job Actually Entails
The reality is, as a writer you are the unwashed person behind the computer screen, hopelessly sucked into a social media labyrinth, trying to remember the precise meaning of glean while your dog scratches at your leg because you haven’t even glanced at him in hours. One minute you’ll pound out several pages and the next you’ll stare at a blank screen with a cursor that seems to blink rythmacially to Daft Punk’s Digital Love. It’s manic.
And you won’t make money. So forget creative writing unless you’re completely comfortable with that “starving artist AKA I live in my parents’ rental” label.
To make a decent living at it, you have to use your wonderful talent to convince women that they need to treat themselves to another pair of stilettos or popsicle or extra truffles or remind men that Mother’s Day is only four weeks away! Time is Ticking! Insert Clever Line About Flowers Or Spring Here.
I don’t have a problem doing this because I wasn’t fortunate enough to be born into the starving artist class. When I talk about my career as a commercial writer, my most hippy friends crinkle their noses in repulsion.
Commercial writing disgusts me sometimes too. But I am not making bombs. I am merely making a living. Because I have to. No, I really, really have to. You see I was an English major. My dog only eats salmon kibble. I have car insurance. I have an apartment. I fully intend to be a functioning member of society.
I don’t have a drug habit that allows me to make the completely impractical decision of going it alone without the company support.
One day, maybe I can do something more noble to make up for crafting all those destructive marketing messages. You know, the ones only copywriters and really bored people read.
Today is just not that day. Tomorrow could be that day.
After my year in Quebec, I am currently sporadically employed and unsure where I will be next.
And there are a lot of writers out there. Experienced, inexperienced. They will try to tell you you’re not good enough, your prose doesn’t quite live up to their brilliance, that you made a typo over there and you misuse the word supercilious over here.
How can you even be a writer? You haven’t read ____ (insert relative obscure hipster book here).
Fuck them. Seriously, eyes on your own paper you pretentious fuck because I am old enough to know that you saying I am a bad writer doesn’t make you a better writer. It makes you look jealous of me. That makes me look and feel more awesome.
If you want to be a writer, you cannot listen to them. They will always be there to tell you it is an impossible choice. That only 1% of writers are ever published. That your cousin is better than you. That your cube mate is better than you. That your niece is the next S.E. Hinton.
“She was only 16. Only 16.”
They will tell you that you’re NOT GOOD. All the time.
You will believe it because believing in your own art is incredibly difficult. You will criticize every sentence. You will try and write like Dickens one day, Dostoyevsky the next. You will seek validation constantly.
In my masters for poets class, a group of writers clustered around David Wagoner, shoving poems into his face as if they needed his permission slip to keep writing. I wanted it too. I secretly longed for him to pull me aside and tell me I was brilliant.
I am not.
A writer friend of mine once told me to aim to be the worst in the class because you’ll learn the most. That was one of the most on-point declarations about writing I have ever heard. I stopped caring about the competition and tried to learn something. I now have unquentionable thirst for knowledge from other writers.
When I tell people I write for a living, they look at me quizzically. I am awkward but not eccentric enough I guess. I don’t go out of my way to be artsy.
What do you write?
It’s very difficult for me to answer this because it’s a little bit of everything right now. Travel writing, copywriting, some journalism.
Depends on what you mean by published.
And then the industry. It is rotting, freelance rates are falling because people who have no regard for the written word are churning out articles to make websites rank higher. Writing for search engines! Use more exclamation points! Product descriptions! Guest posts! Content is king and so we’re stuffing it full of steroids and churning it out, page after page.
A virtual Amazon.com e-book bin where authors self-publish as they please! Your closest family member won’t tell you your story is not only riddled with misspellings, it is a complete rip of Harry Potter.
“But wait, no, it’s different, I added vampires. So it’s vampire teens attending a school for magic.”
“What about horses?”
“Teenage girls love horses. Add a white stallion named Bizou and I think you have something.”
I don’t want to discourage anyone from writing, if that’s where the passion lies. But the truth is, it’s far from the glamourous career creative writing majors envision. Only write if you have to write. Write every goddamn day, every lunchbreak, write in the frost on the mirror from the shower. You will do it because if you’re a writer, you have to do it.
I was never very good at anything else. Math makes my head hurt. For whatever reason, I can never remember how to properly use shutterspeeds so photography is out.
I may not be very good. But writing has always been there.
I do it because I have to do it or I feel off. I do it because an inner dialogue perpetually goes on in my head. Many writers would call this “musings.”
I hate that word.
Examples of inner dialogues:
“Remember that one time Ruben said you seemed ‘small’ because you weren’t wearing heels and wondered out loud if your house was crooked and it was all where we were standing? And he placed a coin on the floor vertically to see if it would fall and you wanted it to fall over, wanted to discover that the floor was tilted and that you lived in a house with crooked floors. Or maybe the world is tilting, slowly. Everything is sliding left.’ We’ll have to adapt. We’ll learn to climb upwards.”
A thought I had when passing sympathy cards specifically marked for “unexpected deaths”: I don’t get this. Death is about the only thing we can expect.
“November leaves are the same color as paper lunch bags. And they skip across the street like school children”
I sometimes worry these types of thoughts, ratteling around inside will drive me nuts if I don’t release them, even if it’s only a tiny squeak at a time.
So I write. It is not glamourous work. It is sweaty and sometimes, tedious. It is not even valued with a hefty salary.
Do you want to be a writer or say you’re a writer? If it’s the former, you already are. There’s no box to check. There are no forms to fill out. You don’t need anything but a pencil, paper, and some thoughts.
It doesn’t matter if someone pays you for it or not. Or if someone says you’re good. Or if you have a degree from a prestigious college.
You will write because you have to.