I’m committed to writing, creatively, but I’ve had to be honest with myself about what this means.
I’m a freelance journalist and copywriter who also writes short fiction and creative nonfiction, but today, I feel like I really suck at writing. Yeah, I used “really”, and anyone who’s serious about writing knows that intensifiers are confirmation that you suck. Today, I’m thinking, “Why the f*ck am I even writing? What’s the point of it?”
A week ago, I thought I was doing pretty ok. (Yes, another intensifier, at this point, I don’t give a hoot). An article I wrote on Medium got 6.6K views and earned me $252.8. I completed a short story, and was particularly proud of the ending, which took a few months to work itself out. Two long-form features I had written were published in well-circulated glossies. I wrote brand content for a small jewelry company and felt like I had spun straw into gold. And I was asked to chair a panel discussion at a writers’ conference.
But this week other things happened, and now I feel like I’ve been painfully kicked off my horse. I had three submissions and two pitches rejected by editors. Two potential clients I sent quotes to told me my rates were too high. One of these potential clients, someone looking to hire a writer for his business-focused biography, actually saw the fact that I wrote fiction as a professional liability. “I’m looking for someone who is good at conveying facts, not things based in unreality,” he had told me. My fiction critique group didn’t like my latest short story, the one with the wonderful ending that took months to work itself out. Things got worse when I went online and read short stories and essays by people I knew who had their pieces published in prestigious literary journals like AGNI and Tin House — journals that had rejected half a dozen stories I had submitted. Some of these writers had won Pushcarts and PEN/Faulkners. Their stories were good, way better than my own stuff. It was terrifying. It depressed me.
Yesterday, I ate a peach, crunched down too hard on the pit, and chipped a tooth. As a self-employed, freewheeling writer, I don’t have a health insurance plan that takes care of dental work. Earlier this year I had decided to “say no to projects that don’t excite me” to focus more on “meaningful, creative writing”, and because of this, I am now running low on funds and will have to tap into my savings if I want to get my tooth fixed. When I told my husband, he said, “I’ve got you covered, but why don’t you just get a regular job with benefits? Let’s get real, you’re a struggling artist and nothing’s ever really going to come out of your ‘creative’ writing.”
The way he emphasized “creative” made me want to punch him. But he was right. I would have never admitted it for fear of sounding pretentious, but I do see myself as an “artist”, and right now, I am “struggling”. When everything is going well and I’m on a winning streak, I’m guilty of thinking I’m just a little bit better than everyone else because I’ve found a way to make a living without being confined to an office, and because I get paid to do that thing that I know many folks have secretly, or not so secretly, dreamed of doing — writing. Not email writing, or proposal writing, or writing up a work report, or writing up a parking ticket, but real writing, about people, about interesting places, about love, about loss, about beauty, about myself, about the meat and bones of life.
Being a writer is a privilege. It’s a privilege because if people actually read what you write, it means they are interested in what you have to say, or they like how you say it. It’s a privilege because it’s a way of living that enshrouds you in a cloud — or miasma depending on your opinions about the philosophically inclined — of intellectualism; though whether that intelligence if real or imagined is anyone’s guess. It’s a privilege because many people think that professional or established writers are “cool and interesting people”. It’s a privilege because it means your voice is heard in a world where so many people are silenced by circumstances beyond their control.
But these privileges are not for the faint hearted, or anyone who is too sane. As a writer, I spend copious amounts of time alone, engaged in circular monologues that make my head hurt. I often grapple with professional and financial uncertainty. I battle grandiose then self-deprecating thoughts about the purpose and value of what I do. Then I confuse and tire myself further by asking myself who you are and why you do what you do. I doggedly face rejection emails on a regular basis, then blow air up my own ass so I don’t just “give up already”. But my biggest battles are with these fundamental truths about writing.
Truth 1: Almost anybody who has been to school can write. I’m not a doctor, a computer technician or a finance whiz. My skills are not specialized, so I will never be as in demand as someone who knows how to cure cancer, remove a computer virus, or help another person get rich. When it comes to know-how, I have the same basic tools that most educated people have — I’ve learnt to use the alphabet. In terms of workforce market value, this makes me common and dispensable.
Truth 2: There are a lot of written words out there, and people’s attention spans are getting shorter. Information is everywhere, in bookshops, online, on the back of a shampoo bottle, graffitied on the walls of a toilet stall. We are surrounded by words, bombarded by them. Do I really need to add to the sludge? Writing is thinking out loud, and on bad days my brain is a cesspool of crap. On good days, it’s one woman’s panoply of opinions and impressions. So why do I so obnoxiously impose the contents of this mind on others? How rude of me.
Truth 3: You will probably never be Steven King or Joan Didon. There are a lot of good, hardworking writers with brilliant ideas and original voices out there, many of them more talented and prolific than you. Yet, many of these writers have never been, and might never be discovered in their lifetime. There are many writers who have published in indie litzines, who are connected with all the right people, who have the right credentials, but who are still waiting to get a good book deal or make it onto a bestseller list. Like their fellow artists: the actors, painters and musicians of the world, most creative writers value fame — what weeuphemistically refer to as “recognition” in order not to sound like “American Idol” contestants— more than money. But if you run the numbers, it becomes clear that as a writer, your chances of becoming known is ridiculously slim. According to writer Joseph Epstein, “81 percent of Americans (approximately 200 million people) feel they have a book in them — and that they should write it.” But UNESCO estimates that only an estimated 2.2 million books are published worldwide each year. The Huffington Post reports that 96 percent of authors seeking agents get rejected. Even the bigwigs struggled to be noticed. J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” manuscript was rejected 12 times by publishers, James Joyce’s “Dubliners” was rejected 30 times, Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” was rejected 38 times, and Jack Canfield’s “Chicken Soup for the Soul” was rejected 144 times. So unless you can accept that much of your work will remain in obscurity, and that your rewards will be meager, arriving only come in dribs and drabs, you’d be a fool to put too much skin in the game.
Truth 4: Creative writing is self-serving. It’s about self-expression for the writer. There is little altruistic or community-minded about writing, and compared to professions like nursing, firefighting or rescuing endangered animals, writing is much less noble. I’m sure there are many writers who‘ll disagree, but I don’t think the primary motivation for writers is helping others. True service to the reader is a secondary benefit of creative writing. Creative writers write because they need to relieve themselves of their mental congestions, because they like the sound of their own voices, and because they need to find their own truths. If what a writer comes to conclude as truth resonates with theirs readers and helps these readers find their way through whatever existential crisis they’re going through, that’s great, but the main reason we writers write is because the process is like a drug: it takes away the pain and it makes us feel good, or sometimes just ok.
It took me a few months to come up with what I thought was a good ending to my short story. But my pals at my critique group didn’t think it was good enough. I’m having a hard time writing a good conclusion to this article too. Maybe it’ll come to me if you give me a few months. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s best if I just shut up now and let you make your own conclusions about writers, about creative writing, about the volatility of the writing life, about artists and their struggles.
Today, I feel like I really suck at writing. Today, I’m thinking “why the f*ck are you even writing? What’s the point of it?”But I’m writing, so I’m not struck dumb by the whats, the whys, the ifs, buts and maybes. I’m alive, my brain is squirming, my fingers are moving, I’m making marks on the white screen, and doing so makes me feel a whole lot better. It makes everything — including feeling that I really suck at writing — alright.
Michele is the author of “Without: Stories of lack and longing”, and blogger at confoundingconditions.com and thefinickywanderer.com