Why Would Anyone Want to Become a Writer? PART 1

Surreal-1

I’ve wanted to be a writer for most of my life. I also wanted to be an artist. And a rock star. But mostly a writer. I had the grades 1 and 2 spellers memorized before I started grade 1. I was writing sentences while the rest of the class was learning letters and words. I was writing one paragraph stories while the rest of the class was learning how to write sentences. I was also drawing dinosaurs and trees while the rest of the class was producing abstract finger paintings. In fact, one of my dinosaur drawings was selected to be part of an exhibition of Canadian student art that toured China in the early 50s. Once it left the school, I never saw it again. 

My singing peels paint off walls and my guitar playing inspired roommates in the 70s to sell my guitar while I was out of town. Apparently, they regarded the three chord one minute composition that I played day after day and night after night while I tripped out on acid as an audio assault on their ears. They claimed I weaponized music. 

So much for being a rock star.

I put my artist career on hold while I waited for the return of my dinosaur picture from China. 

I’m still waiting.

In the meantime, I’ve been writing. I’ve been writing a lot: several novels and novellas, tons of short stories, articles, poems and essays. There’s something about words that fascinates me. They’re like loose Leggo blocks of the mind. You can do anything you want with them and the only limit is your willingness to whatever you want. The possibilities are endless. You can use them to make people laugh or cry. They can illicit anger, joy, outrage, hatred, enlightenment, sorrow, curiosity, knowledge, faith, love; in short, anything a person can feel can be communicated through words. They’re not pieces in a jigsaw where you’re just reassembling something that someone else has created. 

Unfortunately, most people treat writing as an onerous challenge, something that makes a 500 word essay a major milestone of pain. Grammar likely has its hand in this. Grammar is a plethora of rules that are constantly in flux. Punctuation is a subject of debate that differs across genres; fiction writers can make their own rules about the placement of commas in order to replicate the patterns of speech, whereas a college student may lose marks for straying outside the boundaries of acceptable comma use in a history class essay. The reasons for hating writing are legion.

In fiction writing, I think the biggest obstacle to expression isn’t so much the task of using words to describe a scene, render a character or define an idea. There’s a fear of revelation…of revealing to oneself things that oneself would rather not have revealed to oneself. (Whew!) Fiction has that insidious effect of uncovering truth, wanted or unwanted. I think the best fiction writers are the ones who’ve come to grips with themselves or they’re on a lifelong journey of self-discovery through their writing. But there are those people (probably the majority) who back away from anything that rings of an unwanted truth and create stick people characters.

I notice this in my writing workshop (aptly called Writing Hurts Like Hell) when my students do mindless writing (a concept I stole from Dorothea Brande’s book, Becoming a Writer) in which they have to write on a topic for 10 or 15 minutes without stopping to correct spelling or grammar. They have to keep the pen moving no matter what comes out, even if they go off topic. It’s kind of mindless…and it’s kind of scary. Sometimes the writing goes in directions that make the writer uncomfortable, especially when it reveals things they’ve kept suppressed or just don’t want to acknowledge. 

But…even for those who can look deep into all the crap that floats around in their minds and souls, being a writer can be hell.

I remember a time when being a writer was something esoteric and special beyond words. For many, it created a romantic vision of typewriters banging out page after page of dazzling metaphors and mesmerizing tales of bigger than life people engaged in historic battles between conflicting personalities set against panoramas of turbulent times. Most of these people never really visualized any of that; all they visualized was them sitting at the typewriter being writers and the pages may as well have been blank. Yep, special beyond words.

If you let it be known that you wanted to be a writer, you were invariably treated like a hopeless dreamer until you actually had something published. Then you were regarded with awe and treated like a deity. But for the most part, you’d earned that reverence. You’d likely given up a ton of things that others had and you had to wait for until you were published, if ever.

We hear about writers who lived in poverty while they wrote…the problem being…unless you had the right connections, you didn’t make money on your writing until you found a publisher, and your book could take years to write. This problem is endemic in most of the arts…you don’t get paid until you finish the work. In the meantime, you starve and live in a one room hovel in the worst of neighborhoods. You lose most of your friends because they don’t want to venture anywhere near that awful place where you live. 

This scenario plays out less these days. Most of the writers I know have full or part-time jobs and write evenings and weekends. But there’s still that dimension of sacrifice. I have a full-time job in the IT industry. I write evenings and weekends. I know a lot of people but I have few friends that I see regularly. In fact, I see my best friend about once a week. I rarely go to movies, concerts, plays, gallery openings or any of the social things that other people take for granted. I haven’t been to a movie since the release of Avatar.

This is likely why many writers are considered quirky and lacking in social skills. But the alternative is to live in a hovel and starve…and you’re more likely to starve.

Let’s look at the reality of the publishing world. Suppose you take a year to write a novel. It might take you another year to find an agent or a publisher. Once you’ve found a publisher, it might take up to two years (or more) before your novel is published. And these days, advances on royalties are becoming scarcer and increasingly modest (i.e., don’t give up your day job). After your novel is published, you might wait up to a year before you see a royalty check and the numbers printed on it might not be enough to buy a new laptop. To rub insult into injury, the contract you signed with your publisher might have specified that you’re to spend a certain percentage of that money on marketing, a trend increasingly popular with publishers.

So, here you are…no friends, no social life, no money to show for all the effort and sacrifice and the question arises: Why would anyone want to become a writer?

To be continued…

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