I read an article today in the New York Times by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed about a woman who had a powerful dream one night about writing a book. The dream was so intense she awoke in tears, almost ready to quit her job and become a barista so she could pursue it. (Riiiight. Because that’s the path bestsellerdom, certainly more practical than getting an MFA and adjuncting yourself out as an English professor. But I digress.) Cheryl Strayed, who knows a thing or two about dropping out, acknowledged that dream may have been a kind of wake-up call, but also issued a few cautions. “Writing a book is drudgery,” she said. “It requires an apprenticeship. I suggest that you begin by doing it. Sign up for a workshop or take a vacation and spend it writing. See where that leads you. You don’t have to immediately quit your job to become a writer. You need only to start writing.”
Words never more true. You can’t call yourself a writer if you never write because writers write. I’d like a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “I’d write a book if I only had the time,” or “When I retire I’m going to write a book.” Yeah, because writers are really people with these friendless, vacant lives, and they only write to give themselves something to do besides watching The Bachelorette. (And no I didn’t.) Now, when I retire I’m going to preform brain surgery because you know, it’s the same kind of simple skill set. In my opinion, this type of thinking boils down to what many outside the profession believe: that writing is either something anyone can do if one could afford the leisure, or it’s this ephemeral kind of vocation that awards stardom upon completion of the inevitable masterwork. In reality, I hate to tell you, it’s usually neither.
But one thing I can say with absolute certainty is the writing life is just that. It’s like being being pregnant: you either are or you’re not. You can’t be kinda. When you’re in the life, it’s all-consuming. A work-in-progress is a cruel, unrelenting succubus (or incubus) that forgoes your loins for your every creative thought. It demands all of your time, whether working or driving or eating or sleeping–it takes hold of both rational and irrational thought and doesn’t let go. It demands you set every word and impulse down by forcing you to confront the blank page, administering pain no opiate could numb, but rewarding you with a pleasure beyond sublime in the process. But to be good at it, to be a success, it entails hours upon tens of hours of trial and error, the ability to withstand heaps and heaps of criticism, the tenacity to write the same passage a dozen times over, and the capacity to understand failure as a fact of any writer’s life.
In the end, if you have a hardened enough hide to spend hours in a chair, days without family, weekends forgoing anything social, and months and months of hurrying up to meet a deadline, only to spend an equal amount of time hearing nothing back, then maybe–just maybe you’re ready to wake up from that dream into a new reality. And take that job as a barista.
Hey, at least it has benefits.