Licking our wounds

If you read all about why being a writer sucks, there’s a good chance that you walked away feeling a little shaken up. And, if you weren’t quite ready to hear some of the things discussed in that post, I completely understand if “a little shaken up” is more like, “I just took several shots to the ribs.”

If that’s the case, I apologize for being the one throwing those blows. Or, rather, guiding the blows thrown by the literary trail into your ribs.

My hope, of course, is that by exposing some of the more common obstacles standing before writers today it in the long term opens us up to further, more honest exploration of said obstacles, and of the ways in which those obstacles can be overcome.

Before we get there, though, I thought it best to take a beat and talk about the flipside of all of that, to point out some of the ways in which being a writer is great. Because, well–if you’re here, chances are you’re not walking away from this path, perhaps because you already know this to be true–it really is great, and that much of that greatness stems from those exact obstacles.


You’re not alone

In that same post about why being a writer sucks, an idea is established about how as a writer today you’re essentially entering a lottery, and that by being an active participant in that lottery you’ve thus entered into competition with every other writer out there–to not just produce something meaningful, but to produce something meaningful and to be heard.

While that may be true in many regards, let’s push back on that a bit.

The picture painted by that analogy is grim. A bit Hunger Games-ish. And it’s easy to picture every other writer out there sharpening their weapons, practicing their acrobatics and swordsmanship. And then there’s you, on the training ground but struggling to find protective gear that’ll even fit, or a blade that isn’t rusted or dull.

But in my experience, there’s very little about it that’s cutthroat. Competition exists, but it largely goes unspoken, or goes unnoticed entirely, as if the mindset is not one of “taking down an opponent” or that there is a lottery to be won, but rather that A) each writer is running their own race and competing with one’s self, and B) that there’s enough room at “the top” for everyone.

While I think there’d be some people who’d view the mindset I’m trying to explain above as magical thinking, what I feel can be extracted with absolute certainty is that, like so many things involved with being human, there’s a spectrum here–on one end lies the bloodthirsty and battle ready and on the other end lies, I don’t know, let’s call it absolute peace. It’s very unlikely that you’ll encounter a writer whose approach lies squarely on either one of those ends–I’d like to emphasize that it’s very, very unlikely to find one on the bloodthirsty end, in particular; after all, writers are readers and readers by nature connect with the text because they are creatures who regularly exercise a high degree of empathy–and far more likely that you’ll encounter writer after writer lying somewhere in-between.

All of this is a long (but hopefully fruitful) way to say the following: you are not alone, and that the people alongside you in the lottery are, at large, not assholes.

Again, I can only speak from my experience, but they’re actually quite the opposite: writers that you’re in direct competition with are nice; they’re sweet; they’re genuine; they’re encouraging. They can simultaneously care about their work and its success, as well as yours, as well as the work of several others. It’s an amazing thing. And I’m of the belief that you, dear fellow writer, ought to cherish that, and to put more of the same out into the world.

Before jumping into the next section, a couple quick notes:

  • I want to take a moment to point out something that I’m becoming more and more aware of as I get older and evolve as a human, because it might not be the same for everyone. If you look at the words I’ve chosen to use here, particularly, “competition” and “lottery,” well, I tend to think that that language is a direct product of capitalism; that I, the writer of those words–born and raised in the U.S.--learned from an early age how to apply that view to several different scenarios. The view of: what does it take to win? What does it take to get ahead? Again, that might not be the case for everyone, even others who were born and raised in the U.S. as well. But I think it’s really worth pointing out here because it opens up the floor to acknowledge how writers–and, I suspect, artists and makers of all kinds–exist in spaces where art and commerce intersect, and that they’re often in conflict with the two worlds. Perhaps we’ll explore this idea at length in a future post, but for a moment imagine a world where money & markets play no role in the writer’s life. In what ways does that change things from what we experience today? Would we in place of the baked-in struggle generate our own competition? Is competition inherent within us not as writers, but as humans? Stay tuned for more later.
  • I’m not going to argue that it paints the clearest of pictures, but for validation of not being alone as a writer, check out these charts and figures on writers & authors from Data USA. For example, according to this, in 2019 there were an estimated 167,000 writers & authors in the American workforce. But, that takes several different industries into account (i.e. a technical writer at a corporation). The more realistic figure, I’d wage, is that of that 167,000 there were about 26,000 “independent artists, writers and performers”. Keep in mind, also, that that number is problematic. There’s a wide margin of error in that count of people, as well as in the average salary being reported for that subset, which was about $56,700 that year. Which likely means that the thousands of people out there–including me–who hold a day job and write when they can have not been counted in the 26,000 figure.
  • Are you feeling alone as a writer? I’ve been there. If what you crave is an online writing community, you have many, many options out there, and this post from Reedsy might be a good starting point. Looking more for something in person? Yeah, I’ve been there too. Perhaps a post on how to go about creating your own writing community would be a great topic for a future post. Stay tuned for that as well.

Paths are endless

Back (briefly) to the previous post, about how being a writer sucks, where under the heading of the very same name (“Paths are endless”) I shared a list of questions that the writer may ask themselves on any given day. That list includes:

  • Are you going to publish the traditional route? Independently? How do you feel about self-publishing?
  • Should you get an MFA? Or should you pursue alternative methods of writing education? Or, wait, do you need to spend money on writing education at all? Do you already have the tools you need? Can you get by with just a few writing books as guidance?
  • Should you start a blog? Should you charge people to read that blog? What about a newsletter? Should you charge for that too? Will anyone actually pay for that?
  • What about a podcast? What about Tik Tok? Should I have social media at all? Who really cares what I have to say?
  • How important are readings, really? Should I book some? Should I just read over Zoom? Maybe I can just post videos of me reading to YouTube?

It’s important to note, I think, that these questions really are just the start. And, get this: none of these questions have anything to do with obstacles and choices the writer faces when they’re actually writing the material they hope to bring to the world. They all have to do with promotion or education–not plot, not character. So, there are millions of decisions the writer must make, and millions of micro-decisions.

On one hand, that can be incredibly overwhelming. But on the other, I think what that endlessness can provide is comfort. It’ll take me a second to get to what I mean by that, but let’s start here:

“All of this is a long (but hopefully fruitful) way to say the following: you are not alone, and that the people alongside you in the lottery are, at large, not assholes.”

I’ve mentioned this already in my About section, but I earned a B.A. in Creative Writing, where I emphasized in the fiction and creative nonfiction genres. Right before I graduated, I co-founded a literary journal, of which I served as creative nonfiction editor for two years. Two book-length projects of mine–both considered “literary fiction”--were taken on by an agent at a very solid agency in New York City, and it was only after that agent up and quit (18 months later), kicking my work (and the work of several others) to the curb, that I decided to found my own micro press, which I operated from 2016 to 2020. In that timeframe, I served as editor, publicist, designer and distributor for four book-length works, and served as the managing editor of another literary magazine that I founded, where the work of over 70 international contributors was published. Two years removed from that closure, I’ve created this website, I’ve started this blog, I’m at work on a novel, two TV pilots, and two children’s books and am actively expanding my choices as a reader so that one day I can incorporate other genres into my own work.

So my point, at long last, is this: I graduated with that degree in 2012, and in ten years I have tried on and taken off several writerly hats. I have failed on several occasions, succeeded by my standards on far fewer, and today, at least for the most part, look back upon those ten years with gratitude, for not every industry out there, or artistic pursuit, provides its participants with such opportunities to explore. Opportunities to take the wrong path, to double back to the trailhead and start over.

As a writer, because the paths are endless, the potential for exploration and reinvention is also endless.

Sure, talk to some people and they may try to steer you into writing for one genre and one genre alone. They may steer you to one platform, to one medium, to one voice. And if that’s what you want, that’s great. Go for it. Perhaps that fast tracks to you the success you crave, whatever form that takes. But it’s also okay to not. It’s okay to experiment, to play, to dabble, to put the fucking hat on and ask yourself if you like the way it fits.

And, if you’re someone who’s keen on leaving this section with a concrete reason as to why it’s okay to do so, here’s my reason: let’s say that you’ve written mysteries for the last five years but, as you’ve started to get bored with the genre, you start writing a fantasy novel. And let’s say that you finish that fantasy novel and that that fantasy novel is good. Like, really good. Good enough for an agent, good enough for a publisher, etc. “But I’m on this mystery path,” you might think. “Maybe my audience won’t make that jump to fantasy with me.” And those are valid thoughts, questions. But here’s the thing, a wonderful, amazing thing: as a writer, not only do you have endless paths for exploration and reinvention, but you can be on more than one path at the same time. You can have more than one audience. It’s okay. More than okay, it’s very, very possible.

Freedom & flexibility

Ah yes, sandy beaches. Snowy cabins. Scribbling story notes in your backcountry tent at sundown. Mmm. You know where this is going; you’ve read something like this before, somewhere on the internet, and not that long ago, some listicle, some huge selling point for the pursuit of writing: YOU CAN DO IT FROM ANYWHERE!

And, well, yeah. It’s true. And it’s exactly what I intend to say here in this section. But let’s be real. Can you afford to travel to that sandy beach, let alone stay there long enough to settle in and get a significant amount of writing done? What about that snowy cabin? Do you live where the backcountry is accessible? Do you have enough gear to get out there? Is there enough space in your pack for a notebook and pen?

Even if you can answer yes to some, or all, of the above, the truth is that many cannot. Because the truth is that, yes, while you can perform the action of writing from anywhere in the world, I suspect the reality of “anywhere” for the majority is: at any coffee shop, at any desk, in any bed, in any bus seat, and on any toilet. Your work, then, is entirely portable. While the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed and pulled several industries into embracing remote work, how many other professions or artistic pursuits can actually say the same thing? My gut says: very few.

Though at times throughout my writing career I’ve struggled with being too entrenched in routines (to be explored through a later post; stay tuned), this portability is something that I absolutely love about being a writer, and I’m saying that as someone who at this point has to say that writing is my “hobby” and not my “profession”.

Regarding that… I’m writing this on May 26th, 2022, just two days after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Yesterday my daughter turned 22 months old. And, following an emotional conversation last night with my partner, I’ve spent a significant amount of time gathering resources on what it will take to move to a country outside of the U.S., where our family can be safer. Both of them: my daughter as she ages and goes to school, and my partner, as she’s an elementary teacher. If that is a move we indeed make–and I hope it is–I don’t for a second have to worry about whether or not a new environment will prevent me from being able to do “my hobby”.

And that’s lovely.

It’s a marathon

Last time, I promise: if you go back to the previous post, you’ll see the exact same heading–”It’s a marathon”. And beneath that heading is a breakdown of why it’s frustrating that on the writer’s journey there isn’t a whole lot of sprinting going on. Rather, because a writing career can last from, say, age 20 to age 90, it’s far more of a marathon. And, well, some people don’t like marathons. The distance is hard. The pacing is hard. The breathing. Sometimes, it’s far easier to do an all-out sprint.

But there’s a flipside–because of course there is–and that flipside runs harmoniously with the previous two sections in this post: “Paths are endless” and “Freedom & flexibility”.

Let’s say you are lucky enough to write from age 20 to age 90. In those seventy years, you write, I don’t know, twenty books. Ten of them are mystery novels. Six are fantasy novels. Two are poetry collections. One memoir, one essay collection. In the middle of your career, you also started your own literary magazine and served as its fiction editor for over a decade, a position you loved, but that you left because you found something you loved more: teaching writing. And you did that for over thirty years, first online, and then at a non-profit, and then you went back to school so you could teach at a higher level. And even after you retired, you stayed in touch with several students and served as a mentor of sorts as some made writing a primary focus of their lives, and while others made it a secondary focus.

And even as you approach your deathbed, you’re at work on three different book-length projects, two of which are in genres that are so familiar to you that you think of their rules as your second and third languages, but one of which is in a genre that’s completely unfamiliar to you, but one that seemed fun to try.

Look, it doesn’t matter if you started writing at 20, or 12, or 62. The following is true: the paths before you are endless, you have the freedom to explore and to fail, you may be on more than one path at a time, and by the end you won’t have run just one marathon; you will have run several.

That’s pretty great, no?

Happy to be sharing the literary trail with you, my friends. Take care of one another.

End of article

Where My Creative Writing Degree Has Fallen Short, Part 1
Pick a life, any life.
Where My Creative Writing Program Has Fallen Short, Pt. 2
Criteria for judgment.
Where My Creative Writing Degree Has Fallen Short, Part 3
Facts are facts.
How My Creative Writing Degree Has Served Me Well
Holding that expensive piece of paper up to a different light.
Why Being a Writer Sucks—an essay
A dash of truth.
Would I Send My Daughter to a Creative Writing Program?
“Do you have time for a few questions?”

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