Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Enduring the Life of the Writer

I recently came across a quote by Kurt Vonnegut that had me nodding my head in agreement. But as I did so, I wondered how many people really understood what Vonnegut was getting at. The quote is this.

 “Talent is extremely common. What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of the writer.”

Plenty of people say they want to write, but what they really want is the prestige of having written. They want to stand around at a potluck dinner and casually mention they've just finished their novel, or they want to sit on a panel at a conference and talk about how hard it is to understand this character and his motivation. They want, in essence, to be seen as a writer. Few really want to live the life of a writer. And that is probably because few understand what that life is like, and when they do get an inkling of it, they find something else to do.

Writing is a desk job and, even worse, a seven-day-a-week desk job. Writing requires the discipline to
claim a seat every day at the same time for hours at a time, to work on projects that may become tedious, disappointing, frustrating, confusing, threatening or worse, and keep at it until you either finish it or abandon it, wasting valuable time and inner resources. And you do it alone.

For many years I was a free-lance editor and ghost writer. I reached my desk every morning, five days a week, at nine o'clock. I took a break for lunch and worked till at least five o'clock. I tracked all my time, for billing reasons, even stopping the clock to take a phone call. I kept a careful record of hours for my final invoice, in case anyone cared to challenge it. If you are a ghost writer, you may negotiate lots of specific terms but you can never know until you begin how you're going to feel writing this particular project. You may find that you despise this book after the third chapter, but you also may be very reluctant to quit the job at hand because that's your paycheck. If you've taken an advance on the job, you're going to have to give money back.

If you are going to write for a living, you are going to be tied to deadlines. Once you agree to a project, for example, editing a six-hundred-page book on labor relations in Egypt, you're accepting the publisher's schedule, and the vicissitudes of your life matter little or not at all. If the author is late responding to your queries, you may still not be able to renegotiate your deadlines.

And you have no one to complain to about the injustice of it all except your partner. Spouses of writers are known to be extremely generous and tolerant, if they last, out of necessity.

Once I started focusing on writing fiction during the day, instead of late at night or on weekends, life did not change. I still had deadlines for book reviews, articles and essays, and manuscript evaluations.

And whenever I went to a potluck dinner, the last thing I wanted to talk about was my "work." I can't talk about a story I'm working on, and god knows I don't want to talk about the writing life. It's a job. Do you expect a plumber to talk about the sink he put in earlier that afternoon?

Some years ago I dropped into the Boston office for a nonprofit that provided pro-bono legal referrals for artists. The room was small, with a window looking out over a busy downtown street. The walls were covered with bookshelves packed with legal tomes. The desk was a chaotic mess. The young woman who worked there was the sole employee. She had no other co-workers in that old office building, and saw no one during the day unless she went out for coffee or lunch. Depending on your attitude, she had the best or the worst job in the city.

The life of the writer means that you spend most of every day alone. You have no one to bounce ideas off of, except for the weekly or monthly writers' group.  The rise of social media has changed things a bit for writers. Now we can check in online with a host of strangers doing just what we're doing--trying to stay focused on a story that refuses to cooperate. But we're still alone with our problems.

If you're a writer, no one cares if you're tired or depressed or have allergies. Your editor only cares if you turn in your work on time and in publishable condition. You can send your mss out to beta readers, but in the end you're the only one who can fix things in the story. And when your story does get published, you may have to tolerate interpretations that make you think your story was published in a foreign language on another planet. And then there are the well-meaning friends and relatives who think you should talk to their Auntie Gertrude who once wrote a really good poem and met an editor, though, of course he'd be 120 by now if still alive, but he did have a son in the business too.

Vonnegut was certainly right about the rigors of the life of the writer. But those of us who do endure it know that it's the only way to live. It's merely a bonus that it's also the best way to escape the inanities of this world, and perhaps save some of our own sanity in the process. If you don't love to write, to choose automatically to spend most of every day with yourself alone and naturally lean toward facing frustrations and problems alone with no help from anyone else, then writing is probably not for you.

I found Vonnegut's quote at a site that offered 20 quotes on writing by any number of writers--Vonnegut, Rowling, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and many more.


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