Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Writer's Reality

I recently received an email from an eighteen-year-old college student who is currently studying law, but whose passions lie in writing. He feels that he is at a crossroads and asked me for advice on how he should proceed. I meant to only give him the gist of what he might expect, but the floodgates unexpectedly seized the opportunity to burst. I'm copy/pasting them here in case anyone else finds themselves faced with a similar dilemma and is searching for arguments from either side.

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I certainly hope you were not expecting me to patronize you with the follow your bliss balderdash my teachers, classmates, and therapists crammed into my head nearly a decade ago when I was in your position. But you presumably would not have gone to the trouble of writing such a long and honest letter if you were not soliciting a long and honest reply. Good. Where do I begin?

Ah. Right.

Being a writer fucking sucks.

But I am getting ahead of myself. You say you are studying law, which is a very sensible choice. There are plenty of careers towards which a degree in law might carry you, and I would imagine most of them pay a good salary, offer decent benefits, and afford opportunities for advancement, travel, prestige, etc. These will be jobs, no doubt about it, and somebody geared towards creative work will frequently find himself wishing he had more time to indulge in what he feels is his "true" calling. Fortunately, he will probably have enough vacation time to bang out a short story every now and then, and ample opportunity to write his novel after he retires (which, with a career in law, will probably be at a reasonable age).

Now. Let us consider what an English major might lead to. Contrary to popular belief, the English degree is not a worthless waste of time. Plenty of employers are looking for people who are accustomed to approaching subjects analytically, can communicate clearly, and possess a well-honed bullshit detector. But I get the feeling your inclination might be to start searching for a gig in the publishing industry as soon you pick up your Bachelor's of English certificate from the framer's. I cannot say for certain how this will play out, but I can venture two guesses:

Best case scenario: you work at a publishing house for several years, climb a rung or two up the ladder, and put yourself on a first-name basis with the suits who determine which manuscripts get published and which get the paper shredder, earning your book (whenever you get around to writing it) a somewhat better chance of landing in somebody's inbox instead of the slush heap.

Worst case scenario: you discover that the publishing industry does not give two shits about literature, authors, or books, which siphons all joy from writing and dashes your hopes of every seeing your magnum opus (whenever you get around to writing it) in print.

Let us envision a third scenario: one in which you graduate college with a degree in English, get a low-paying, low-maintenance job that barely covers your expenses but affords you the time needed to get any serious writing work done, and dedicate the greater portion of your time to your craft. Here is some of what you can look forward to:

1.) Not getting published -- unless you are a personal acquaintance of a literary agent, an editor, or a famous author.

2.) Having to put off things like buying a new car, moving out, traveling, buying nice things, etc. because you will not be able to afford them.

3.) Feeling like everyone else in the world is having more fun than you are. After punching out from work, your friends go out, get drunk, go to parties, and have sex with people they just met. You, on the other hand, go home, sit by yourself, and stare at a word processor for nine hours.

4.) Not getting published. I cannot emphasize this enough. If the idea of receiving two-hundred rejection letters and not a single "we like it!" note frightens you, spare yourself the irreparable damage to your self-worth and stick to law. (I should also mention that you will not actually be sending anyone the manuscript. Agents and editors are not interesting in touching a manuscript unless they are first intrigued by your one-page sales pitch, two-page plot summary, and sample chapter. They will read the sales pitch, notice that you are not already a famous author or celebrity, and mail you a form rejection.)

5.) Dealing with literary agents. If you ever want to try making it in publishing, never forget that the keys to the gate are in the hands of people like this. (Scroll down to the comments section and gawk at how many unpublished writers kiss her ass and call it "networking.")

6.) As the years go by, you will watch the people in your graduating class scoring promotions, getting married, and buying houses. Your prime achievement will have been getting a couple of short stories published in some quarterly periodicals printed by some Midwestern state universities whose entire audience consists of creative writing professors and other struggling writers.

7.) "When are you getting a real job?" You will get sick of hearing this real fast, and they only ask it more often as time passes.

8.) Seriously considering saying fuck it and crapping out a teenage vampire novel on Labor Day weekend. It will likely have a better chance of seeing publication than whatever project you are pouring your heart into.

9.) Realizing, after five years or more have passed, that you have made an idiotic choice and need to find a more sustainable career. By then it will be too late. Your half-decade career at Walgreen's is résumé poison. Nobody in any field in which you are interested will want anything to do with you, as you are not an unpaid undergraduate intern and have spent the last several years earning experience in an irrelevant and/or useless field. Can you afford graduate school? No? Get thee to a temp agency. Have fun working up the desire to write after eight daily hours of data entry. If you have not yet taken up smoking, now might be a good time.

10.) Not getting published.

Being a writer -- the kind of writer who is uninterested in writing hack vampire romances or vapid crime serials -- requires having a near-religious devotion to your craft, or otherwise being totally out of your fucking mind. Nobody but the faithful or insane would conscientiously opt for such a lifestyle. Writing is something you do because you are irresistibly compelled, in spite of all reason and good judgment, and something at which you persevere because you are ultimately too stupid to quit. The good news is that you will be living for the sake a passion, while most everyone around you is living for the sake of a paycheck. The bad news is that this in itself is the only reward you can expect to get out of it.

I am afraid I do not have a short answer for you. I do not know which choice is best, but studying law is definitely the smarter one. Do what makes the most sense to you. If you decide to follow your bliss, please know in advance that it will be unbelievably difficult, and nobody will want to spare you any sympathy.

Best of luck.

- P

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I showed my reply to a close friend and was castigated for sending you what she called a bratty rant. Okay. Maybe she has a point. Let me put it a different way, then.

Imagine you had asked me for relationship advice instead. Say you are powerfully drawn to a very intense (borderline insane) and beautiful girl whom you alternately adore and despise. Any long-term relationship with her is sure to be tumultuous; there is little certainty of it lasting or ending well, but you cannot imagine living a life without her at the center. Do I tell you to follow your heart and go for it? Or do I advise you to break it off with her and start courting some Irene Scheerer instead?

Again, the smart choice is obvious. But you must decide for yourself if the smart choice is really what you want.

- P


  1. Is said close friend Polly?

    Also, I think he could have used a post script reminder about not getting published. (I wanted to be a writer once. I even have a fantastically elaborate outline written. Alas.)

  2. I am an academic in a totally useless field of study (well, for many people on earth, at least) trying to get my master's degree.

    For me, anyway, there are certain majors that you should NOT take unless you want to be an academic. English is one of those; you probably can get a job, and time to write, if you are a professor or something. I can't really see how else you would, unless your significant other is independently wealthy or you hit a marvelous stroke of luck in writing something popular.

    Even so, I'd rather pursue my passion than be wealthy; you'll hate yourself for the smart decision in the long run, I'd wager.

  3. Crim: Nope. Anonymous stranger. Polly is actually older than me; I would more likely be turning to her for life advice.

    Zachery: Huhm. Reminds me of the Van & Gogh scenario from Chrono Cross. In Another World, Gogh is a fat rich bastard who sits on a pile of money and wonders how much his life is actually worth while Van sits out on the balcony, mopes, and paints seascapes. In Home World, Gogh is a dirt-poor painter living in a crappy shack, and Van yells at him for not thinking of anything but his art, even as they about to get evicted.

    Guess you're boned either way; suppose it all depends on where you prefer to take it.

  4. Well, that's like life, isn't it? Either way, it's a Murphy's Law situation.

    It'd be nice to be in control, but as soon as anyone but yourself enters the equation, an unpredictable element enters. You take the good with the bad, and you move on, regardless.

    The only way to get what you want is to live in isolation, but is that what we really need? How many writers have taken that path, only to learn how empty it can become in the end?

  5. The harsh reality of dropping two years of your life into the English major sinkhole (and then stubbornly refusing to leave it unfinished), while other university friends are making $35 an hour and thinking of buying houses and you're eating canned beans and corn thinking of how to make money under-the-table to leg-up your employment insurance. Luckily, I enjoy soldiering, and it allows me to use the internet as a fabulous dumping ground for the ideas I come up with that will never (unless by the grace of God) coagulate into something publishable. Fuck earning a living off being a writer. Find a line of work you can tolerate and use it as a flotation device while you cork poems into empty wine bottles and hope they wash ashore.