This was my tithe, and the church of publishing was ravenous.
July 7, 2021 9:00 AM   Subscribe

This was the pact I made with my now and future self: to become the most successful writer that it was possible to be. We were supposed to claw to the top together, legends in the making who would interview each other for Vanity Fair. Why, then, were they giving up? An essay on the writing life and dreams of youth.

After I graduated and the soul-crush of the office grind descended, those memories of writing became increasingly appealing to me. I spent several years after college in dead-end office jobs until my former English professor suggested, over lunch, that I get my MFA so that I might teach. It didn’t matter that this was the first time I’d heard the acronym. The faintest whiff of doing something beyond in-house marketing administration was all the hard selling I needed. I downloaded an application for the closest program, ready to aim for a life focused on the only thing I’d ever felt good at.
posted by mecran01 (30 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I want to underline this about eighty times:
I didn’t stop to reevaluate that aging notebook full of transcribed rules, to realize that many of those faculty members had breadwinning or childcare-providing partners, or lucrative publishing contracts to complement their low-residency teaching salaries, and certainly weren’t twentysomething millennials taking on sixty thousand dollars of lifelong debt to further a career that paid pennies on the hour.
The importance of having a partner to take on the mundane life shit is grossly under-represented in the biographies of artists. And if someone had pointed that out more prominently to me earlier, I could have spared myself some self-esteem a few years back. Honestly, the biggest catalyst for why I gave up theater was that one day I looked up and around at all the other working stage managers I knew - and I realized that out of us all, I was one of the only two singletons, and the other singleton had given up on New York City and moved away to do regional theater instead.

One of the big reasons I respect Stephen King is because he is very candid about how his wife took on the bulk of the breadwinning with a "day job" when he was first getting going, and Lin-Manuel Miranda always alludes to the support of his wife and her much more lucrative career when he was also first getting going (a line from his first Tony acceptance speech ever: "To Vanessa, who still leaves me breathless, thanks for loving me when I was broke and making breakfast").
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:54 AM on July 7 [53 favorites]

Having that partner with the responsible job and the insurance is HUGE when it comes to the success of a writer. I provided childcare while I struggled at home with the claw to the top of the pile for publication, but my wife kept a steady-- sometimes wildly miserable-- job so I could keep climbing. Once I was published, she got to go to school for her MLS, so she could spend the rest of her days working a job she loved.

We were willing to stay below the poverty line, and live with parents, and do without, so that I could get to where I am-- and where I am is hardly the lofty heights. But I was willing to keep getting kicked in the face to get here, and that's the other part of her essay I want to highlight.
I sat with questions I wouldn’t have admitted before for fear of cursing myself: What if I never write another book? What if I only create what I want, when I feel compelled, for no other reason than I have something I have to say?
Only creating what you want, when you feel compelled, is art. And art is beautiful, and art is good. But publishing is a business. There's art in it, but there's also 6166 forms, and pass pages, and seasons, and trends, and marketing niches. There are categories that have nothing to do with horror/sf/literary: instead, seasonal lead title, annual lead title, cover lead title. The greylist, where books get thrown in the catalogue like spaghetti, to see what sticks. Midlist is grey on the inside, possibility on the out.

And you do have to keep going. You do have to be willing to keep writing even when you don't want to, and even when it's hard, because writing is art-- publishing is business. And if you find something that makes you happier than going into a weird business that wants to eat your art, then that's not failure. That's self-awareness. That's beautiful. That's life.

Again using Stephen King as an example, he talked about how, when he was young, that he put his desk in the middle of his office. But after his accident, and after his success, and after his recovery, it became a small desk in the corner.

If you measure success by "getting published", you have to put the desk in the middle of the room. If you realize that you want something else, something different, another path... you push the desk into the corner. And that's okay. All that matters is that when you arrive at your last day, that you were happy getting there.
posted by headspace at 11:04 AM on July 7 [17 favorites]

Another thing Stephen King said - which was a HUUUUUUGE comfort to me several years ago - was something he said about how to tell if you were talented: "If someone paid you for something that you wrote, and the check did not bounce, and it was in an amount sufficient to pay one of your utility bills, you are a talented writer."

He's right, and it was exactly the right validation I needed when I needed validation most. The people who were paying me was a small theater company for which I wrote educational support material for 10 years; I never got any bigger than that for pay, but you know what, that doesn't matter. I'm content.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:14 AM on July 7 [27 favorites]

To me this was all about learning that your dreams aren't going to come true, that you're not good enough to have them come true and most of us are not, and it's fine to take refuge in making babies and having a family and having a day job you aren't into and doing what you want on the side. (Though uh....for those of us not going the family route, dunno what to say there.)

Really, she started hoping she could become famous so she could get out of her crap day job. Don't we all relate to that? Fame as a means of hope that you can jump the line, that you can actually spend your days doing something you actually care about instead of tedious crap that you hate so you can have money and insurance?

Except, well, most of us can't do that and have to settle for a life with kids, or on the couch watching television, and making our art for ourselves without hoping that a lot of others will see it. That's real life.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:43 AM on July 7 [6 favorites]

I had youthful dreams of being a Writer. The way my brain works, it's just always spinning out characters and plots and ideas, just daydreaming in the background. I wrote a (bad) novel in college that I shopped around unsuccessfully. Then I worked in publishing for about ten years, which quickly disabused me of the notion that there was any romance or artfulness to the business side. During that period I scribbled and started a lot, but it was difficult to focus while working full-time. I wrote another (better, I think) novel while at home with my toddler. It was HARD, and I did not like the seclusion necessary to write seriously. Just when I started shopping it around there was a family health crisis that interrupted things. And when I got back to it I realized that my brain works for writing, but not for selling. I gave up on being a writer, and though I kind of made my peace with it, I kind of felt like I'd failed.

When my son was in middle school he got into D&D, a game I'd been obsessed with as a kid but hadn't played for decades. I got pulled into the scene and ended up running a game, and that was when I realized that everything that tunes my brain in to writing works even better for running a role-playing game. Instead of holing up by myself, I'm collaborating with my players/audience, making friends and being social, creating together. Meanwhile my mind can spin up countless options of the way things could play out for the next session. Oddly enough, one of my players is a best-selling middle grades author. And after seeing how hard he has to work to crank out product AND constantly promote I am totally at peace with being a Not Writer. I'm not built for it, and the accolades I thought I wanted bring their own problems.

I like running a yarn shop, writing knitting patterns, daydreaming and running games. Ambition is overrated.
posted by rikschell at 11:48 AM on July 7 [19 favorites]

The notion that some degrees are just for people from rich families, and for a few admitted with full funding, is never going to sit well with most people, but it kind of looks like the MFA is one of them, to me. That seems very sad. Bad for the programs, too, even more so for creative arts degrees than for other academic pursuits.
posted by thelonius at 11:55 AM on July 7 [2 favorites]

Sometime in the past few years, after a lifetime of ramming my head against the wall of feeling unable to write what I needed to to "break through" and unable to break through with what little I managed to get on paper, my priorities shifted such that:

1.) I lost any fear of being "derivative." By which I mean that I stopped trying to be iconoclastic or subversive on every dimension of story-theory that I could enumerate and embraced the idea that tropes are only clichés when done poorly, and to know them is to know the recipe for a genre. And playing around with making recipes one's own is fun. If you're bringing any personality to the craft at all, it's going to shine through one way or another. So embrace the recipes, adapt them to your liking, and start having fun with this again, dammit!

2.) If I'm the only person guaranteed to read anything I'm writing, I better damn well make it the thing I want to be reading.

I've felt a lot more happily productive since that shift, I'll tell you.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:02 PM on July 7 [22 favorites]

I'm not sure what to think about this piece.
Writing is a world where the art and business is all tangled up together.
For so many people, success as a writer is synonymous with being published in a certain way, selling more than x amount, getting a certain amount of media attention.
None of those things are in your control. You can't make them happen, no matter how hard you work at it. And they have very little to do with being a good *writer*.
There is a lot of luck involved, and a hell of a lot of privilege based on who you are and where you live. Also a lot of skill in networking and knowing how to sell yourself.
I am a writer.
I am a successful writer according to my own criteria. I make very little money selling my books. I am self published. This means that I am free to write the books I want (and need) to write. Writing is hard at times, and sometimes I wonder why I keep doing it. Except it gives me the most amazing buzz, to create characters and figure out what happens to them. I am not famous, but I keep getting little messages from people who have discovered my books and loved them.
Being a South African writer of genre fiction means my reach is very limited. It's very difficult to make a living at doing creative work, so I don't try to do that.
Other people have that skill and I respect them for that, but I don't have that skill.
If I could have given the writer of this article advice when she was younger, I would have said, "think carefully about what you consider to be success. Don't let the demands of the publishing machine make you lose track of what drew you to story telling. "
posted by Zumbador at 12:28 PM on July 7 [10 favorites]

My entire life I was told that being a writer was an impossible profession, and would doom me to poverty. As a result, despite a talent for it, I didn't pursue it and instead dropped out of college to work at a dotcom in early 2001.

Several years later I was burned out on IT and decided to start freelancing at night and on weekends. Within six months, despite being $25,000 in debt from youthful foolishness (some of it education-related, some not), I had quite my day job and was a full time professional writer. I wish I hadn't listened to all of the teachers and adults who projected their own fear of failure onto me, and had started five years sooner than I did.

Writing has been by far the most lucrative and rewarding profession I've ever engaged in. It's been close to 15 years of full-time writing now, and it's brought me an absurd income, paid for my house, and is currently paying for the art and production of my first graphic novel, which is slated to be published next spring.

I only write about subjects I find interesting, I am in daily contact with intelligent, creative, and fascinating people, and I do it all from my home. Writing has sent me around the world and given me opportunities and experiences I would never have had otherwise.

I do think there's a lot of fantasy surrounding what it means to be a working writer. It's a business like any other, and it has to be treated that way, whether you're working in newspapers, magazines, on the web, for television, or entirely in fiction.

I do my best to encourage and support writers who are just starting out in a way that I was never supported or encouraged. I think everyone who wants to write, should write.

I realize that's a lot of 'I' statements, but I think it's important to provide an example that shows it IS possible to live as a writer, and that there is no single path to get to that point.
posted by jordantwodelta at 12:56 PM on July 7 [14 favorites]

an amount sufficient to pay one of your utility bills
There was a time that Jimmy Buffett actually covered one of my songs to play on tour. When his band came to perform in our city, he invited me to attend as his guest. I went backstage afterward to thank him, easy to find at the central hub of a nest of congratulatory hubbub. He took just enough handshake time with me to say, "well, at least youʻll be able to buy a new living room set with the royalty." True musiciansʻ humor ... I came away feeling a working member of a tacit worldwide fraternity/sorority. And as it turned out, the amount of my royalty check was pretty much exactly the cost of a new living room set. Thank you so much Jimmy.
posted by Droll Lord at 1:31 PM on July 7 [25 favorites]

"The Talent Of The Room"
~~~ by Michael Ventura
... When it’s all over, if you’ve stuck and had some luck, you have a few things published that you’re proud of and a pretty good idea of who you are. Without the first you probably wouldn’t have stayed in the room so long, and without the second you’d have gone crazy a long time ago. Crazy as a writer would define it: too unbalanced to work. If you can still write, then how crazy can you be?

Plenty crazy, is the answer. The room can become a hole. Your talent of the room, your ability to be there with all your soul, can overwhelm you. Then the rest of life becomes unreal and, worse than unreal, a kind of unlife. ...


Some of the best writing on writing that I've come across.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:22 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]

I feel this hard, hard, hard.

I've written about this before elsewhere , but like, a couple years ago, a piece of memoir I published got scouted by a couple of Hollywood types and in a very short period of time, I had multiple queries about film rights and somehow for about a minute and a half I had an agent talking to me at the literary agency I always wanted to be talking to me. And look, I’d been on the precipice of real, meaningful success before, close enough to taste it with and the floor had crumbled beneath me. So I had every reason in the world to doubt that it was really happening, and all of my reason was like, "thivaia, everything is finally coming up motherfucking roses."

The next six weeks were a fizzy, discombobulating journey. I spent a lot of time reviewing contracts and researching life rights (because it was memoir), film licensing and whether or not I wanted to be involved with the screenplay (one of the producers thought I should be). And even though, it probably wouldn’t have been much money and who knows how anything would have actually done out there, I had a moment or two of feeling like everything I’d ever done was actually leading to something real and I could introduce myself as a real writer and have it, for once, not feel like bullshit.

Anyway, the deals fell through for a host of depressing reasons and the end came as swiftly as the whole thing had begun. The wave I’d been riding washed out behind me and I was left exactly as I started: hollering into the void, not really interesting enough to interest people, feeling pretty stupid and chewed up.

I know the drill. What you write, what you play, what you create—it’s not supposed to be for someone else. You should be perfectly happy to toil quietly, taking pleasure only in the act of creation. I shouldn’t need whatever credential or byline to make me happy. I know the healthy thing would be to stop trying so hard and settle into the way things are. Because things are fine.

But when everything fell apart, I fell a little bit apart. I felt embarrassed talking about it. Because in the grand scheme of disappointments, not having a book with my name on it or an unexpected movie deal feels about as crass and ridiculous a complaint as you can imagine. I’d hate the version of me that complained about it. I kind of hate the version of me complaining about it now.

But I'm still writing because I genuinely don't know what else to do. And maybe this is as good as it gets. But still . . . I dunno.
posted by thivaia at 2:37 PM on July 7 [13 favorites]

I made about AU$1500 from my "writing writing", in total, over about five years, when I was a younger man. Now I make significantly more than that as a communications guy in government, and I much prefer it this way. You can still flourish here and there, it's fine.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:42 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]

I don't want to brag or make anyone feel bad, but at age almost-55 I had my first published piece, for the Wired magazine "six word science fiction" contest, in May. If you know of a good agent, drop me a MefiMail, thanks.
posted by mecran01 at 3:03 PM on July 7 [16 favorites]

Washer women taking in eachothers laundry. Or possibly some other less gendered metaphor, but I like that comparison that back breaking work that you can do as a woman even in very rigid cultures. And writing trains a disproportionate number of women to work at it as a trade.

And for the most part it's a closed loop of readers and writers , with way less readers than the sheer firehose of text. More than that, the whole business is piled with books that never get read, bought out of duty or because the celebrity name on the cover has cachet.

And yet, there's massive waste of the unread. Books bought to pad sales ranks. Books sent to outlets, or stripped of their covers or marked. Books bought to stock shelves that won't actually ever get read, who exist because the person Dreaming of being the Writer is a twin of the Reader.

There has never been more unique fiction in existence and most of it is either unwanted or impossible to find because it won't make the filters of social groups to ever get opened and consumed.

So Writers largely seem to impress other Writers, next to Readers, many of whom may not even be reading at the volume of consuming and everything is locked in these community loops.

That is what I realized of most of the Writing options were- closed communities, or banging out commercial copy, rhythmically, with the grace and attention of smacking sheets onto rocks, passing them through mangles or pressing them endlessly through hot ironing plates. Those ones don't even have a primary audience of humans and are increasingly using tricks like article re-writers.

If I try hard, I can scrape a living slamming keywords into web bound text, have a mastery that makes my SEO extra readable. I also use it to try to get more eyes to the fiction and essays I give away for free, even as I know that blogging, that brief means to an audience, is already largely dead. At the same time the internet is now miles of surplus copy leading into recipes and so forth. All things no human is actually reading, just putting to trick the search crawl into finding it. It's left its mark with etsy titles too, going from the whimsy they started with into a hot mess of any possible associated term.

As far as real audiences, we have flipped from message boards to private sites back to social media communities again for those who need or want longer form text. Getting your books to sell there is hard, but about the only way to break through. Saturation is heavy for self publishing, with communities aggressively punishing self promotion.

I don't regret the only money is in porn, it's more honest work than tricking an AI. I like my erotica and its beer money profits. But, even being a fairly competent pornographer is a challenge.

Writing is a trade someone decided that there would be prestige to, smoke and mirrors based on attention, when I know that even with ok recognition, nobody even reads my free review copies. It's a mess.
posted by Phalene at 4:10 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]

I took a crack at a freelance writing career, and probably would have gotten torpedoed out of it eventually by the sinking wages (the rate I was paid went from a dollar a week to sometimes a quarter over the span of two years; I did at least get out before anyone asked me to write for free), but even more than that what sank me was that I didn't realize going in that the writing would be the *easy* part. I wasn't prepared for or really capable of all the constant hustling; endless story pitching (and rejection), hassling people for paycheques you're owed for jobs you finished weeks or even months ago, the endless networking, etc.. In the end the only reason I managed to more or less break even during those years was due to a couple of corporate jobs thrown my way by university pals who worked at banks and video store companies.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:36 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]

The problem with being a creative for work is that you have to be a business. But what if you suck at business?
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:10 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]

But what if you suck at business?

In my experience, you have large credit card balances and read metafilter a lot.
posted by maxwelton at 6:52 PM on July 7 [15 favorites]

I may have mentioned before how my clients often are bewildered that, "I did not know that I would be running a business" when they started earning money as professionals or artists.

Can I also chime in that an awful lot of other professions, the supportive(ing) spouse can create mistaken impressions - my daughter as a high school teacher was amazed at how her peers were taking expensive holidays, until I pointed out that the demographic they came from included a lot of business owners. cf. Nurses (female and male) married to doctors (female and male).
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 6:53 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]

People tell me all the time I should have my own business. If I had a dollar for every time....hahahah. However, I suck at math and nobody wants to run a business FOR you.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:01 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]

Writing is a world where the art and business is all tangled up together.

So Writers largely seem to impress other Writers, next to Readers, many of whom may not even be reading at the volume of consuming and everything is locked in these community loops.

Some of you guys should try the rush of writing to give it away. It doesn't solve the rent problem (what does), but a lot of the subsidiary unhappiness I'm reading on this post vanishes when you decide it's not a business.
posted by praemunire at 11:50 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]

There's always been overlap between art and business - Leonardo didn't do no work for free, none of those cats did. How about Melville? He might have been love-sick (on his own, particular level) for Hawthorne when he wrote Moby Dick but he was trying first and foremost to make a buck. What was it Boswell put in Johnson's mouth? "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."
On the other hand I have about thirty-five years of un-profitable writing behind me and if I'm lucky another twenty plus ahead of me. Well, lemme amend that, I'd be happy to make more money at it, but I'm not expecting it. (In his lifetime Melville made about 250,000 current USD from his writing - which is not shabby, but he has driven into the brains of countless ... I guess what I mean is, sure Johnson, maybe I'm a blockhead but then again maybe you're just a fucking asshole! Ha! Gotcha, clown! *Sigh* If it's important to you to make lots of money from writing and you're not, you should just get another job. If you want to bore into the head of someone (and not just now in this moment but off into the future as well) - then write harder.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:12 AM on July 8

“When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money” - Oscar Wilde.

Just another quote showing that money has been an issue for artists for a very long time. But what previous generations didn't have was MFA programs. There's been such an explosion of low-residency MFAs that I've got to think they must be a real cash cow for colleges and universities. One woman I knew was really shocked when I told her that I didn't think a low-residency program would result in a college teaching job - such positions are almost impossible to find even for people with more traditional MFAs. Yet even though I'm skeptical, I've still been tempted to enroll in one. I think these programs rely on people who think they will be the exception. No judgment - in many ways, I'm one of those people myself.
posted by FencingGal at 6:49 AM on July 8 [5 favorites]

There's been such an explosion of low-residency MFAs that I've got to think they must be a real cash cow for colleges and universities.

Oh, I'm sure. When people want to attend, they usually want to be writers so badly, and they think this is going to both improve their work and get it seen by agents etc. I am sure that the first of these things happens for many students, and the second for some, but anyone in a state of wanting something that badly is very vulnerable to fooling themselves with the kinds of things you mention and going ahead and signing a loan.

One woman I knew was really shocked when I told her that I didn't think a low-residency program would result in a college teaching job - such positions are almost impossible to find even for people with more traditional MFAs.

I know a guy who thinks that when it's finally time to get it together (he's 50) he can just get a Master's in Philosophy and teach in community colleges.
posted by thelonius at 7:24 AM on July 8

I'm not a writer, but I'm thinking about the advice she followed. It's true that if you want to be a writer, you have to write, but this doesn't mean every writer needs to write every day. Trying to follow every possible lead probably helped to wear her out. Being thoughtful about what leads were likely to help after she'd had some experience with what pays off probably would have served her better.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 7:56 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]

There's been such an explosion of low-residency MFAs that I've got to think they must be a real cash cow for colleges and universities.

I read a twisty little satirical literary thriller last month by a pool that both addressed this and did a really great job sending up low-res MFAs (and if you're looking for a beach book, you could do worse).
posted by thivaia at 10:29 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]

There’s writing. There’s the business of making money writing. And there’s being a writer, an identity that … doesn’t always have as much to do with the first two other than that it’s craving something that is unfulfilled without the rewards of success that are largely dependent on being discovered and embraced by readers, which may not involve making an actual living as a full-time writer but does typically require some luck and ability in the business side of things. But that identity can also be a bit of an attention addiction that is never really satisfied no matter how hard you work or how good you are. Not all writers, of course, but many who I know are insecure and often unhappy even after they’ve achieved some of the goals they’ve set themselves, or who worry their next book will be a disaster even after scoring all the outward signs of being highly successful. I’m not sure how or why this identity thing became such a heavy burden.
posted by zenzenobia at 7:02 PM on July 8

EmpressCallipygos, I've also enjoyed reading King talking about writing, and there's one bit (in his On Writing, I'm pretty sure, which is generally very good) where he talks about his sales of pre-Carrie short stories to porn magazines who published them mostly to give themselves some ostensible "artistic merit" (although the stories themselves were mostly very good; they make up the bulk of the collection in Night Shift). He's coming home with the wife and kids, and the car is breaking down, and his daughter has an ear infection and they can't afford antibiotics on his teacher's salary... and there's a check from Gallery or Cavalier or some other Playboy wannabe that will cover all that, with a little left over.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:43 AM on July 9

Ambition is not just overrated, it's harmful. I like to (try to) replace it with the "will to do."

Nthing Steven King's "On Writing." What a lovely book. I picked it up off the bargain table and had no idea how good it would be.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:50 AM on July 9

Also nthing "On Writing," with the addition that I've tried to give King a chance, but I really think his novels are just not very good. So even if you're not a fan of King's work, "On Writing" is a worthwhile read.
posted by FencingGal at 8:57 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]

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