What is a serious writer? A serious writer could be a person who quits her job and naively attempts to write a novel with no training or understanding of the medium beyond, “well, I’ve read a lot of them.” A serious writer could also be that guy working in the laundromat scribbling on pieces of scrap paper on his lunch break who turns out to be Stephen King. Or the academic who ekes out a short story or two in between theses and defenses and vying for tenure against all the other smart-asses in the department. Or some dude sitting at a Starbuck’s creating a fictional world of coffee-based organisms whose raison d’etre is to find their perfect milk-based companions. In short, a serious writer is a writer who thinks he or she is a serious writer. That’s pretty much it. Power of the mind, baby.
It took me a helluva long time to be a serious writer (though not as long as Laura Ingalls Wilder, who started at 65) and despite the job-quitting and MFA-matriculating and daily minimum of three ass-flattening hours at the keyboard, I still spend a good portion of my day reaffirming my seriousness. This is largely because, 1) being a serious writer has some equally serious downsides; 2) my self-esteem tends to wander like a cloud, coming and going as it pleases, that little bastard; and 3) serious writing can be a damn lonely vocation.
1. Downsides Illustrated Through Sample Conversations (based on true stories).
A: You don’t matter unless you’re published -
“Hi, what do you do for a living?”
“Oh, I’m a writer.”
“Really?! What do you write?”
“Cool! Where can I find your stuff?”
“On my computer.”
Silence. Looks around for someone else to talk to.
B: It’s your fault you’re not published -
“Hey, how’s your book going?”
“Not bad, good days and bad days.”
“So when are you going to get it published already?”
At this point you have a few options:
1) “When I find the right (publisher/agent) to (sleep with/bribe).”
2) “Fuck you, mother fucker.”
3) “Ah, it’s not that easy, you know.” (add nervous smile)
4) “It’s not like I’m TRYING not to get published! Fuck you, mother fucker!”
No matter which you choose, invariably the response is:
Silence. Looks around for someone else to talk to.
C: Your job isn’t really a ‘job’, per se:
“I hate my job, blah blah blah.”
“Yeah, that sounds awful.”
“How do you know, you just sit around at home and write all day.”
Silence. You look around for someone else to talk to.
2. Self Esteem, You Sneaky Minx, You.
This little minx goes hand in hand with Downside Conversation Numero, Er, C: You Don’t Matter Unless You’re Published. It’s tough to take yourself seriously as a writer when you have not yet been published. If your writer friends tell you they don’t care, they’re lying. We all care. I’ve shrugged my shoulders and said, “Ah, it’s okay if I don’t get published. I want to write for myself, you know?” I was lying. So how do you manage to maintain your self-esteem as you reach for the Holy Grail?
A: Look in the mirror once a day and lie to yourself. Any lie will do, as long as it doesn’t make you cry afterwards.
“I don’t care if I get published.”
“My pores are not abnormally large.”
“My husband will still love me if I burn through our savings.”
B: Call yourself an artiste and surround yourself with fellow artistes. They’re your people. They understand why you don’t have enough cab money to get home.
C: Surround yourself with a lot of stupid friends and slip as many Latin and French phrases as you can into conversation. Ad infinitum.
D: Drink heavily.
If you do reach that Holy Grail, ride that high as long as you can because it’s only a matter of time before you’re asked for the next manuscript. And the next. And the next. Et cetera. Q.E.D.
3. Writers Are Lonely People, or, Why We Drink Heavily (cross-reference 2.D)
Eking out genius from your subconscious is a bit like waiting for God, d’oh! Okay, that was stupid. A profession that requires you to sit alone in a room with your thoughts is a lonely one (oh, I can feel that genius!). I’m sure I’m regurgitating from the gazillion self-help for writers’ books I’ve read. It’s okay if you’re the type that likes to drink alone (and before 4pm), but for us naive folk who believe that writers can lead normal lives, too, the loneliness can get overwhelming. You wonder if sitting at home in solitude is ever going to amount to anything. The sound of your own thoughts start driving you insane. You check the clock to see if it’s 4pm already.
When things get overwhelming, I overcompensate. For example, I think I wrote a hundred correspondence emails in this past week alone, and I still feel the pressing guilt of those starred messages I still have to respond to (sorry guys, I'm working on it!). I Skype, I magicjack, I webcam, I Whatsapp, and through a considerable amount of effort I am allowed the wonders of watching my godson grow up in Bangkok, seeing my nephew smile at me from Los Angeles, reading about my best friend’s swollen pregnancy feet, and keeping up with my brave penpal as she struggles with cancer, all worlds away. I wonder if my nephew imagines me as one of those preserved celebrity heads in Futurama. My head is constantly shouting at him (because of the bad connection, not because I’m Scary Aunt) framed inside the 17-inch screen of my sister-in-law’s laptop.
I spend my day alone so I reach out, like, a lot. Then I realize I’ve pissed the day away and vow to turn off my wireless tomorrow. Always tomorrow. Did I mention, I also blog? Crap.