It’s not hard to imagine a young Dorothy Parker sitting at her Catholic school desk, an arm curled around her paper so the teacher and the girls sitting nearby can’t see what she’s writing (definitely not the assignment).
Or Hunter S. Thompson at his school desk, but without an arm covering his work. Just writing whatever the hell he wants to write.
When I started writing at around twelve years old, it was on my bedroom floor after having read a certain number of magazines with single-page stories on the final page. I decided, “I bet I can do that.” A few hours, three cursive pages, and one or two strikethroughs later, I found the submission address on the back of the magazine and sent in my (absolutely terrible) story.
I don’t remember waiting for a reply, nor being disappointed when nothing came in the mail. What I do remember thinking is, “Woah. I want to do that again.”
Twenty-eight years later (or, about two weeks ago), I’d be sitting behind a laptop in a Barnes and Noble Starbucks and working on book number three when I’d look up and notice the shelves and shelves (and shelves) of books — none of them either of my first two — on the other side of the cafe railing.
How many books, 99% I’d never heard of, were on those shelves?
Why was I working on yet another novel when, at dreamland best, it would make it to a shelf where it would sit beside another book no one would buy right along with mine?
I took my fingers off the keys and used my hand as a visor so I wouldn’t be seen by the nosy man at a nearby table. My face was red, I could feel it, and I’d started to sweat. My eyes burned. I grabbed my phone and sent a text to someone who cared: PLEASE TELL ME I’M NOT WASTING MY TIME AND MY LIFE.
About a week ago, I read a short story on James Moore’s website about his introduction to the NASCAR experience. At one point in an email conversation about what kind of book it might make, he wrote (quoted here with his permission),
“Anything can be turned into a book. I could write whatever they want but nobody knows what they want.”
And a few days ago, this post by a writer I know appeared in my Facebook feed:
“I don’t have a clue what people want to read anymore. Not a damn clue. Obviously.”
I’ve had plenty of my own moments–when Amazon stats were I’m-getting-drunk-tonight low or when rejected agent queries had me rubbing my forehead–of moaning, “What the hell do they want?”
What a bullshit question. I know what they want as well as the next person does. Here’s what sells: straight up romance, family drama, sci-fi/fantasy, mystery/suspense, and books with pink covers and high heels. And even then, it only sells for the few.
The real question, the one I think we don’t ask because it sounds whiny and because it’s easier to blame readers for our obscurity, is, “Why don’t they want what I have?”
There had to be a time, for most writing adults, when – as it was for me – writing was untainted, tunnel-vision fun. A time when they were burning a pencil on a short story while everyone around them scribbled answers to text book questions. It had to be like that for Tim Lott, even, who recently warned in a Guardian article that being a novelist for a living is “like a horror film.”
So when does writing make the leap from being an exciting realm of imagination and creation to The Great Lamentable Burden?
When did Dorothy Parker decide, “I hate writing, I love having written”?
Writers circle around that quote like it’s a ceremonial fire, sharing knowing, tsk-ing shakes of the head. We are so very put upon by our passion, yes, we agree.
When did Thompson decide writing was “the most hateful kind of work”?
And when did an exercise of passion turn into nose-high arguments over literary vs. commercial or which writers of what genre do or don’t have value? When did it become about low-residency writing instructors bloviating about whether a person is meant to write and presuming to have license to pat a certain kind of writer on the head while tut-tutting at them that they won’t “make it” (as if “making it” is the determining factor when it comes to whether a person should continue writing, or even be in a graduate writing program)?
It’s a shame — no, it is a stupid, self-induced tragedy — to turn what began as a thing of personal joy and ultimate freedom into a cage of self-doubt, anxiety, stress, petty writer-on-writer conflict, competition, and snobbery. It is the worst kind of insult to the spirit of the child-writer self.
The day after my near-panic attack in Starbucks, it finally hit, and in a way that created a spiritual tilt in my approach to writing, that “making it” had to be eliminated as a focus. There’s too much chance involved. The only thing that can be controlled is the work, which is something that can be tackled with the enthusiasm of a kid trying to run all the way up the neighborhood’s steepest, muddiest hill without sliding down. That’s hard work, too, but completely voluntary and damn good fun, and attempted for no other reason than to meet a personal goal.
This is not to say writing isn’t also a grown-up, professional-level challenge, as Lott says it is… getting it right, beginnings and endings, language flow. Should it not be? But maybe writing becomes the great burden it is when expectations get involved and aren’t met: to win the contest, to land the agent, to make the money, to get the good review, to attract the right approval.
I think that’s at the heart of a lot of frustration surrounding writing. Not how hard it is to make it good (doing anything well is hard – so what?), and not the labor (typing?). It must be the lack of control over what happens to what we’ve written. But if there’s going to be stress over writing, isn’t it more gratifying if it’s writing-related? Over the structure of a sentence, maybe, or whether a character gets in bed with her husband or grabs her pillow to sleep downstairs.
Dropped into the litany of woes Lott claims a writer endures is the only point I think is worth coming away with in any pursuit to find the joy instead of the struggle: “There is nothing – given my limited range of talents – I would rather do.”
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the post-Roe v. Wade novel The Age of the Child, called “scathing social commentary” and “a novel for right now.” She is also the author of the novels The Year of Dan Palace and Pretty Much True (studied in Dr. Owen W. Gilman, Jr.’s The Hell of War Comes Home: Imaginative Texts from the Conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq). Kristen’s interview series at JaneFriedman.com offers behind-the-scenes insights into all things writing and publishing.