Why Bother with the Writing Life?04:09
I’ve wanted to write this post since before WEbook was kind enough to give me a forum for it. I should probably wait a bit longer for everyone here to get to know me, but judgment has never been my strength. So here goes: I want to talk about why we write. I know—it’s an impossibly giant and tangled topic, one that’s getting more and more complicated by the business of publishing, the state it’s in, the growing blogosphere that covers it, etc.
So, deep breath, I’m going to offer my take by explaining why I keep doing it, along with a few links to some great recent essays on the subject.
Put simply, I write because doing anything else makes me unhappy. I didn’t start out as a writer. I wasn’t much into reading as a kid. Didn’t even major in English at college. I fell into book publishing when I quit a PR job in a fit of post-adolescent petulance. By the time I worked my way up to editor, I’d already grown tired of paying non-fiction writers advances only to have to fix their sloppy work. I figured I could do it better (my second fit of post-adolescent petulance). I got my chance when I was relieved of my job by a boss who found out I felt this way. Recently, I came across an essay that paralleled my experience. In it the writer—who has also been relieved of her job—postulates that living her writing dream is turning out to be far more expensive than it would’ve been to fulfill her childhood wish of owning a pony. I sympathized.
Since 2004, I’ve intermittently held full-time jobs (thanks, WEbook!) and done a mix of freelance writing and editing. As a freelancer I’ve been wildly successful, which is to say that I’ve been able to live hand to mouth (barely) while depleting whatever savings I had. But I did it. Mostly because I couldn’t help it and because having no money and being able to write everyday made me happier than having money but neither the time nor energy to write as much as I wanted.
So have you read my book? Have you seen it on the NYT bestseller lists? No? That’s because my first manuscript—a memoir about life and death that I wrote, grief-stricken, at the age of thirty-two—wasn’t good enough. And now I’ve spent the last four years (on and off) writing a novel that I’m terrified to finish because that would entail the possibility of it being deemed unworthy (read: I am unworthy) of publication. But here’s the thing: I already have another idea for my next book, which I’ll start researching and developing the moment this one is done. Why? Because I refuse to give up.
Here are some reasons why I should give up (fyi, I could write more but ultimately I’m trying to inspire here):
- The book industry has been trending towards out-of-the-box commercial bestsellers for years, and my novel is a small literary satire about a man who reluctantly returns to his hometown upon his father’s death.
- As a “small” novel, if I do get a publishing deal it will likely be for little money. Certainly not enough to 1) cover my expenses for the amount of time I spent writing it or 2) cover my expenses while I write my next manuscript.
- I’m almost forty, currently writing this from an apartment on a hillside in a South American capitol where my girlfriend is looking for work and I don’t have a back-up plan.
- Writing is hard. If I don’t get enough time to write, I can be mean to the people around me. When I get too much time to write, I get weird. And regardless of the amount of time I get to write, I always think my writing is lousy.
Scared yet? Didn’t think so. (If you are, keep reading—it gets better.) At some point I realized that my passion—nay, my sanity valve—might not pay. And that allowed me to pursue it with more freedom than I’d ever known. This idea was expressed in a recent entry on the NYT’s Paper Cuts blog where the writer essentially declares modern poetry inconsequential (boo!) then concludes that we’re all poets now (prose writers, too) and we should write for ourselves because it’s the only way to make sure that what you create is authentic. (Read the last couple paragraphs—they’re the payoff.)
To be clear: I dream/wish/desire/strive for publication. Every word I write, every hour I sit in my uncomfortable chair and every cell in my body wants my manuscript to be published. And not just because it would validate all the work I’ve put in—I want people to read my story. I want to make others laugh, cry and rage as I have while writing it. And sure, I’d like to earn a few bucks for the effort. But I’d take publication without compensation. It’s not much less than what I currently make off my writing. (Disclaimer: I reserve the right to change my mind about this.)
Ready to give up yet? No? Good. And that’s the point. It’s been said in countless ways, but it’s worth reiterating. You might get lucky with your first manuscript or you might just be that talented, but the rest of us need to be dogged. Check out the following essay by Dani Shapiro, who (eventually) gets to the idea of why it’s important and necessary for writers to stick with it, especially now.
In the end I think we write for many reasons. Publication is certainly one of them, but it’s not what keeps us coming back. It can’t be, methinks. For me it’s about happiness. Which leads me to this week’s question:
Why do you keep writing?