Subject-line shoutout out to the awesome Amos Starkadder! Here’s something for ye miserable crawlin’ worms who aspire to be professional writers. Sam M., who knows a thing or two about the writing life, e-mails:
Anyone who thinks he wants to be a writer needs to read this interview Neal Pollack did with the AV Club. It’s stupendous. It should be required reading in MFA programs. Better yet if applicants had to read it before applying
You occasionally pose questions about whether someone ought to become a writer.
The answer is, “No, unless you can read this interview and accept that this is the GOOD version of your life. If you would continue writing through all this, then maybe. But be sure to marry someone who’s willing to put up with it.”
What an honest take on what it’s really like.
From Pollack’s piece:
AVC: If, nothing else, to make a living as a writer is a victory in itself. That’s something that can be easy to forget sometimes.
NP: Yeah. I’m grateful. I spent a lot of years wondering, “Why am I not doing this?” or, “Why am I not getting this?” or, “Why is this person more famous than me?” But at the end of the day, I have been supporting myself and, later, my family, as a writer for more than 20 years. It’s all I’ve ever done. I haven’t had a job since 2000, which seems like an eon ago. I wouldn’t mind a job. A regular paycheck might be nice. But I have to realize that’s not a failure, that’s a victory. Yeah, I’ve got some credit-card debt; yeah, I don’t own a house; yeah, the house I rent isn’t as nice as the one I’d ideally like to rent. But, I’m still in the game. I’m still playing. And I’ve done it through a lot of tumultuous times and a lot of economic strife and strife in my personal life and in the world, but it can be done. You know, all of the mistakes I’ve made I have to chalk them up to experiences and not a failure.
I tell you, if I had Pollack’s life, it wouldn’t be worth it — the writing career, I mean. His career isn’t everybody’s career. It certainly isn’t mine. He’s made some very bad career decisions, as he admits. My own writing life has looked nothing like Pollack’s. I’ve had a far more stable career path, always working a regular job in journalism (except for a year and a half at Templeton, but that was supposed to be a journalism job too, before the plan was changed). I can’t imagine trying to support myself and my family as Pollack does, with such an unsteady and unpredictable source of income. I’m not criticizing him, mind you, only saying that it’s pretty scary. It’s beyond my ability to manage, at least here, smack in middle age. Pollack might be in a different place if he had been more conventionally bourgeois. But then again, he might not be much of a writer, I dunno. It’s arguable.
The point is that it was possible in my generation to have a career as a professional writer, on a magazine or newspaper staff, and do stuff on the side, like books, if you had that in you. That has dried up. I don’t know what I would be doing if I were just starting out today. I wasn’t that much of a writer when I got my first newspaper job after graduating from college. Who is? I learned my craft through the daily discipline of newspapering. And now that’s just not open to young writers, not like it was. I’m so, so grateful that I was there long enough to get a career foothold, before it all fell apart.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t go into writing, if that’s your calling. But I would look at it as a calling in the same way that someone considering the priesthood thinks of a calling: that is, as something that will cost you plenty. Eyes wide open.