Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Don't Be a Writer

Note: This was written to advise those thinking about pursuing, or contemplating a more professional trajectory into writing. Because, you need to know, if you didn't already, what it is really like.

The early days of a starving artist...
My dear aspiring writer, don't. Don't be a writer. This is not a job you should choose. If there is anything else you would enjoy doing, do that. This is especially true if you have remotely thin skin because you will have to defend your choice at every turn. You will have to defend your craft and your creation. This is because from the very earliest part of a writing career, you are constantly attacked.

First, everyone will tell you it is impossible. They will say it a thousand times. They will say only the superstars make it. No one, however, knows what makes a superstar, and when you ask these people how superstars become superstars, they will name someone who already made it in another field with a ghostwritten book about said field. The other true writing stars? They paid whatever dues all writers must pay and that process remains a mystery to everyone, even the stars.

Everyone will say no one knows what makes a successful book. In fact, this is one thing everyone agrees on. Family and friends don't know how writing can be successful. Agents and writers don't know what books will be successful. No one in publishing understands people's tastes. Shitty writers can make millions of sales while pure genius prose can be used as drink coasters for Big Gulps. So if you can't handle that level of unknown, just don't bother writing.

If you're impatient, you really shouldn't write. The submission process involves a painful amount of waiting. You have to submit to a thousand agents to get a read through if you are anything like the other millions of people doing the same thing. And these agents will send you letters, time and again, saying it isn't quite right. They aren't interested in repping a book they aren't totally passionate about, and your book just doesn't do it for them. They send these notes anywhere from a week after receiving your query, to never. You might never get a response at all and will have to infer that your writing just wasn't good enough for them to be your advocate.

Some people will say you should get a few stories published and that will help your chances. Maybe having a few published pieces will convince agents it is worth taking a chance on you. But you have to find the right home for your stories. You might read a bunch of magazines and think you found the right one, but your opinion doesn't matter. It's the editor's opinion that matters. And so you get rejected. Again.

Others will say, write some articles! And the process repeats with the addition of some head banging against either a table top, a wall, or both.

Finally someone will say, why don't you self-publish? But of course, self-publishing is looked down upon by pretty much everyone. You can't be writing good work if you self-publish, even though a lot of “superstars” go on to self-publish, and a lot of self-published authors go on to be picked up by traditional publishers (only after they have sold thousands upon thousands of copies under their own steam). And so many other people have self-published and have nothing to show for it. Your chances are slim, even if you follow every book marketing guru's instructions for success. After all, they have no idea what makes for a successful book.

Determined, you read more writing blogs. You read about the successes and failures of your superstars. You try to fit into the molds of different agents and publishing houses. You try to fit into the molds of the market. You make a thousand mistakes. You try again. You make more mistakes. You try again. You open a bottle of whiskey and chug half of it. You write. You lay awake at night with terrible heartburn wishing you knew what to do, that someone would mentor you to success. You rewrite. You think if you could just figure out the magical formula that mixes lead and snake oil you could get gold.

You write every day for months on end. You blog. You comment on other writers' work. You read. You drink the other half of the whiskey bottle mixed with Ethiopian coffee brewed in your French press, because this is what you have in your kitchen to eat. You have become the epitome of the starving artist. It happened some time between the first set of agent queries and one of the rounds of rejections from literary zines. You lose weight. You wear thrift shop clothes that make Macklemore proud. You only buy generic food from the grocery store, and at some point you will finally break down and go to the food pantry when your last bit of pride is stripped away.

But then, you get an email back. It is unexpected. It is a single website where you thought your work would fit in perfectly. They want to print it. SUCCESS! You got an article posted on a website besides your free blog! You're going somewhere! You're a real writer!

That iota of affirmation is all you needed to get through another series of grueling rejections of another piece of your creative soul.

The dream isn't dead. It just got a fresh shock back to life. But never fear, you'll feel this again. And again. Always just on the brink of death, you'll get jolted, pulled back in by that horrible temptress hope.

So don't be a writer. It promises a lifetime of psychological masochism. Be an accountant, or a paralegal. Be a mid-level manager in a large corporation. You'll have a regular salary and so much less psychic pain.

But if there is nothing else that you can do – if it is impossible for you to stop writing – then you must write. You can never be happy doing anything else. You will never be fulfilled. You will never have solace. You will carry the burden of creation within you and without the pen and paper, the keys and screen, you will explode. Or worse, you will rot, the stories inside their womb, dead, festering, spreading their necrosis across your spirit. It will affect every relationship. It will affect every interaction. It will mark every second of your life – with that horrible longing ache that comes when words must be written, when ideas crave expression.

No one will think worse of you publicly for becoming a writer. They will praise your courage and bravery – your commitment to the craft. They will tell you time and again how they always wanted to write a book but never had the time, the energy, or a single coherent idea. If you have completed manuscripts they will fawn over you. If you have published anything, even independently, they will gush over you, amazed they met someone, anyone, with enough discipline and courage to not only finish, but share their vulnerable creation with the world. They will marvel at you, that despite all the reasons not to be a writer, you chose it, and continue to, not because you are a masochist, but the very opposite; because you hate pain.

Because if you are a writer by birth, and do not write, your existence is sheer agony. In this case, it is much better to write, much better to subject yourself to that Promethean submission process. Then at least, there is some chance of relief. This is the curse of the writer, the burden you must bear if you are a writer. If there is no choice.

But, if you can choose, by all means, choose something else. This vocation is not for the weak of heart.

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