I read a lot of writing about writing. I don’t find it strange that writers are fascinated with writing, any more than that cowboys love horses. But I’ve never written much about writing. It seemed too much like using a camera to take a photo of a camera.
But I’m going to break my silence and say a few things about the divine art of the language dance.
I don’t remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to be a writer, but it was early, soon after I became a reader. I know I had the writer dream strong by the time I finished elementary school.
The writing fantasy is a fine piece of fiction. In it, you are an adored author with slobbering fans, rich of course, respected and living the life of the artist on some sun-splashed coast. You send in a manuscript every year or two and your readers consume your new book like a shark feeding frenzy.
But few writers actually live that dream life. The rest of us face disillusionment. After you have your manuscripts rejected about a zillion times, you began to scale back the dream. It erodes to something like this: Maybe I could at least make a living with writing, instead of working for the man all my life. That would be nice.
After that, it downshifts to something like, well, maybe I could supplement my income for now with my writing, work at a regular slave job until I get established and one of these days make enough to have a modest income.
Maybe you begin to get desperate, and you think, will I ever get any money out of writing? You begin to rationalize that other people have hobbies that they spend major money on, like say water skiing, while your hobby costs almost nothing. Maybe you even succumb to the vanity publishers and pay to have your work put in print.
Sliding down the slippery slope, you eventually accept that you probably won’t get any money out of writing. You give up and decide you’d settle if you could just get readers to read your stuff. You’re willing to give it away if people will just read it and say nice things about it. At this point you have become a writing slut.
I remember a moment of clarity, one of the few ones, when I was in college. I was a creative writing major. I had a wife and two babies. One day reality impinged and I thought, what am I going to do after I graduate? How will I support my family. In the end, I changed my major to journalism. When I graduated, I got a job writing for a newspaper. It didn’t pay much, but it paid something.
There’s something else that’s just crazed about the writing life compared to most forms of endeavor. Imagine you go to work at a factory. At the end of the month, you go to pick up your pay, but instead you’re handed a short form letter that reads something like this: We’ve carefully considered your work and we think it has merit. Unfortunately, the type of work you do is not the kind we’re looking for right now. But feel free to come back and work another month. We might change our mind.
There’s another scenario that’s maddening as a writer. Somehow, you beat the odds and get your work published. You almost break your arm patting yourself on the back. You’re not a loser like all those unpublished writers. You sit back and wait for the bucks and kudos to come rolling in. You think you’ve arrived, but you haven’t.
I had a friend who was in a band in college at Oklahoma State University. They left for California to try to hit it big. He worked at Arby’s while they were trying to get famous. Lo and behold, they gigged, built a following and signed a contract with a record company. Their album came out and promptly flopped. Most of them ended up back in Oklahoma playing for drunks on Saturday night.
That happens to writers often. Being published is no guarantee you’ll get an audience. If your book is published and almost nobody reads it, that’s more bitter than sweet. I can’t quote the stats, but most books sell less than 50 copies. It’s like being invited to a party, and then being ignored by everybody there. You don’t have to be thick-skinned and tough-minded to be a writer, but it helps.
So, given all the obstacles, you might start questioning. Is it really worth it? Which is a moot point. Most all the writers I know write because they don’t have a choice. They view writing the same way they do breathing. They’re either writing, or thinking about writing, all the time.
Sometimes, after monumental effort, it all works out. Remember the band whose album flopped and came back home with their tails between their legs? Well, one of them stayed in California and tried to make it as an actor. You may have heard of him. His name is Gary Busey. And two other members of the band kept on trucking for decades, and now they play for Leonard Cohen.
I’ve never made much money off writing, but I wouldn’t say I haven’t been richly rewarded. As far as I’m concerned, money in writing is like the sprig of parsley that comes on the plate with a big old chicken fried steak dinner. I might never eat the parsley, but that doesn’t keep me from stuffing myself with great satisfaction on the rest of it.