You Don’t Want To Be A Writer
Probably not, says Jeremy Lott. Young people — “catechumens,” he calls them — seeking out his advice about a writing career don’t like to hear what he says. Excerpt:
Next time a catechumen seeks me out, I’ll try something different. I’ll eyeball the callow youth and promise to level with him or her. “Look kid,” I will say, “writing hurts.” One thing you won’t read out in the all the books on writing is what an agony stringing words together can be. Nine out of 10 writers, in my imaginary but plausible statistic, will tell you that the best thing about writing is “having written,” which is politesse for being done with it so the little bugger isn’t gnawing at your brain anymore.
The romantic fallback argument for writing is that for all the effort and the low pay per hour, it beats working. But veteran writers will tell you that’s not a valid point. Writing for a living—with the research, the edits, the contracts, the deadlines—will grind you down just as surely as any other job, often for little payoff. Sorry to burst your bubble, kid, but tough luck.
That’s really true. I believe I have the best job in the world — I’m a published writer! I’m paid to do nothing but write! — but if you had told me at 22 how much this would take out of me by the time I hit middle age, I wouldn’t have believed you. Everything Lott says here is true, but let me add a few things.
The thing about being a writer is in most cases, you can never stop being a writer. I mean, you are always writing, even when you’re not writing. You can’t turn the damn thing off. My wife has a habit of coming to me at parties, and whispering in my ear, “Stop writing, Thurber” — this, because she once read that James Thurber’s wife could see when he was at a social gathering apparently present, but was really lost in his head, writing something. It’s really true. I’m almost never fully there; I’m always thinking about how I would describe the thing I’m seeing and doing if I were to write about it, what the lessons would be, or thinking about something I wrote earlier in the day, or planned to write. I’ve learned over the years that I rarely know what I really think about something until I’ve written about it, even if I never commit a word to page.
This can be exhausting, both physically and emotionally, as Lott says. It is taxing on your spouse and children. Most kids’ dads and moms work normal hours, and can leave the job behind when they knock off. Not the writer dad, the writer mom, or the writer spouse. It doesn’t work that way, any more than a man stops being a husband when he’s not at home with his wife. I wish it did, and I know Mrs. Dreher and the Dreher children wish it did. This is why writer’s drink: because they desperately need to get out of their heads, and can’t. It is a secret blessing to me that I feel intolerably bad when I’ve had too much to drink, and even when I haven’t gotten drunk, just overindulged. It keeps me from doing it. I’d sure as hell do it if I had a stronger constitution, just to short out the little internal light that won’t stop flashing, no matter what, and to drown the klaxon embedded in my head that won’t shut up, even when I want it to.
What’s more, nobody cares about this. They really don’t. If you saw me from the outside, you’d think I did nothing but sit on my ass all day in front of the computer, having fun. And I do! I mean, I do sit on my ass all day in front of the computer, and I do have fun. But I also sit on my ass all day in front of the computer and sometimes open a vein, and bleed out. My dad told me that one reason my sister resented me was that I was making good money as a writer, which she didn’t see as real work. That really pissed me off, but the truth is, I think that’s how most people see the writer’s life. When I was a professional film critic, people would say, “What an easy job you have, going to watch movies and writing about them.” Well, yes, it was a good job, but easy? I would challenge them to explain succinctly why a movie they just saw succeeded, failed, or somewhere in between. Most people can’t do it, and certainly can’t do so coherently, in professional prose, written under deadline. All they see is a layabout having a grand old time sitting on his ass in front of a movie screen for hours, and then in front of his computer, typing out a few words. That ain’t working. Money for nothing!
Don’t you believe it. If you’re any good at what you do as a writer, and if you take it seriously, it’s hard. If you ever get to the point where you make it look easy, that’s because you will have worked like a dog to master your craft. I can’t re-read the things I wrote when I first started my career, because they seem so rough and primitive. Because they were. I’m a lot better today than I was back then, because I’ve been working at it almost every single day for 25 years. And I do that knowing that nothing I ever write will be as good as the worst paragraph most of the writers I admire have produced. More on this in a moment.
And as we come around to the point, I must tell you that the writer does all this in the face of great uncertainty about his financial prospects. When I entered the journalism field, it was possible to have a long career in newspapers and magazines. That’s not true anymore. Nobody knows where this is going, or how to survive it professionally. Freelancing as a way to pay the bills is an illusion. Most writers will never get rich off their labor. No new writer wants to hear it, but something between 90 and 95 percent of all books published lose money for the publisher. Just before Crunchy Cons came out in 2006, a publisher friend of mine took me out for a beer and told me he wished me all the success in the world, but that I should prepare myself for the book’s commercial failure. This is the fate of almost every book published, he said. I believed him at one level, because this man was an industry professional. But I thought I would be the one to defy the odds — a conviction I held on to throughout the great press Crunchy Cons got. The book got a cover story in the Washington Post Style section, a full-page review in the Sunday NYT Book Review, a rave in the Wall Street Journal, lots of radio coverage, and more. A lot of people talked about the book, and still do (e.g., Sen. Rand Paul described himself in his recent autobiography as a “crunchy conservative.”)
And yet … Crunchy Cons lost money for the publisher. It never made back its relatively modest advance. People are shocked to hear that, but it’s true. Think of it: I became an author who brought a book out with a major publisher; it was well-reviewed in big mainstream publications and got great media attention. It provoked lots of debate and discussion on the Right. And it still didn’t make me a dime over the advance. (You can help rectify that grave injustice by buying a Kindle copy. Heh.)
I say that not to complain — I mean, I still published a reasonably well-regarded book, and pocketed an advance — but simply to point out that even writers who are relatively successful aren’t really that successful. Most everything you write will fail, in the long run, and it will exact a fairly high cost on you and your family, in ways you can’t always see coming. Here’s something we’re dealing with right now: we want to buy a house and settle down, but we are extremely cautious, given that it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen with my career beyond a fairly short period of time. We have money in the bank right now from Little Way, and I’m well compensated by TAC, but we can’t be sure that I will ever get another book contract, and it’s impossible to say whether or not my contract with TAC will be extended when it expires. We may need that money we could be putting down on a house to live on in a few years. In a worst-case scenario, we could have to move to where the work is. I can’t offer my wife and kids the stability they want right now, because I’m always worrying about where the paycheck will be coming from down the road. And I’m a successful writer!
So, why do it? Why be a writer if you’re setting yourself up for a difficult life in which you probably aren’t going to make any money or have conventional stability; in which you are almost certainly not going to achieve any kind of lasting success; in which few people will understand what you do, much less value it; in which you will set yourself up for a great deal of internal storm and stress, and open yourself to the temptation to drink or do drugs as a way to escape the inability to turn off, at least for a short time, that churning inner restlessness that fuels your creativity; in which you will probably make the people you love most in the world unhappy; and finally, in which the whole damn thing is a lost cause from the get-go.
Why do it?
Because you have to. Because what else is there? You might as well ask a man why he enters the priesthood. If you feel a call on your life, you can’t resist it. That is your fate. That is your lot. It’s hard most days, excruciating some days, but the joys can scarcely be described. I wouldn’t do anything else. If you paid me $100 million for the promise never to write another sentence, I would refuse it, because for me, to cease writing is to give up on life. It is a privilege to be a writer, and a great blessing. A friend asked me yesterday if I would trade the ability to write for the sake of inner peace, and I said no, I wouldn’t. And I meant that.
Good luck, you poor bastard.
[H/T: Prufrock, to which, again and again I say unto you, you should subscribe. It’s free.]
UPDATE: Sam M. adds good advice to this, from the combox:
The thing you fail to touch on here, which I think is the biggest issue, is the HUSTLE. Not the dance. The need to sell.
Most people aren’t salemen. Because most people suck at it. Even if they didn’t, they would hate it. But if you think working a Frito Lay sales route is a drag, try selling words to people who actually pay. It took me five freaking years to get a piece in Outside magazine. Five years. Yeah, Gladwell can probably call up the New Yorker and pitch a piece about whatever. But hardly anybody else can. Even if you are great.
My advice: Be a specialist. And by that I mean, get a real job to pay the bills. Be a nurse or a fireman. Anything which gives you some expertise. And write on the side. About anything, but mostly about what you do.
“Nobody can ever write while working full time, though!” You hear that all the time. Well, rubbish. The Hustle is a full-time job. You will be writing ad copy and crappy stuff for airline magazines and being THRILLED about getting the gig, all while your great American novel withers in your head and you try not to die without health insurance. You have to eat.
Be a nurse and a great American nonfiction piece about the state of healthcare. Or set a novel in a hospital and make the novel believable.
When you pitch this novel to an agent, the fact that you are a nurse (or a carpenter, or a fireman) will do more to get you represented than a bunch of clips about vacationing in St. Louis that you wrote for InFlight.
If you try to write for a living, you will work many, many more hours to feed yourself than if you get a job and write on the side. In other words, if you want time to write, don’t write for a living.
PS: After you try this for a while, you will probably soon give up writing because it sucks for all the reasons Rod mentions. But guess what? Most writers who write for a living quit too. They become teachers or insurance salesmen or whatever, when their kids need to eat.
But it’s fun to be a writer in your 20s! meh. Know what’s fun? being an accountant and having gobs of money to spend on travelling and beer or drugs or whatever else floats your boat.
later, write a novel about accounting. Whatever. It mighht not sell a million copies. But at least you’ll have health insurance.