In 2011, I enrolled in Arcadia University’s MFA, and if we’re trying to pinpoint where the writing life began for me, it might as well be right there. That moment I submitted my application and, rather quickly, heard back that I was accepted (rather quickly in this case due to my application a mere day before they stopped accepting applications).
Really we could look back as far as my childhood and sensitivity and unsure footing in school, but I think we all have those stories, and those don’t generally dictate that we’ll become writers. Sometimes it means we’ll be musicians or drug addicts or abusers or quiet, careful people who can’t bear to think about inconveniencing anyone at all. In my case, it was becoming a writer, more or less, and one that started their journey to the writing life through the pressure of his wife and some sense that an MFA was the next logical step.
So it’s 2011 and I’m starting my writing life. I meet my cohort, I write feverishly and submit and feel important and not important. I learn that I can’t get away with this, but I can get away with that, and I form up the voice in writing that I’ve had sometime in 2012, I’d say. I get cocky about it. I get publication credits to my name and go to Scotland and feel a bit like I’m invincible, which even then I know isn’t true. I watch family members die and write down how I’m feeling to use later on. I begin using everything as material—I stop looking at life as a stage and more as source material. I don’t care if I impress anyone as much as I care about writing stories that are impressive.
And then I graduate, and I join my little writing group from fellow cohort members, and I venture out into the wilds of writing after the program. I still get published; I still push myself to write. I still feel a bit like I know what I’m doing. Earlier this year I became the editor of Third Point Press, and that feels good, too. It feels like a natural progression. Like I am making a difference and giving back to writing; to the writing life.
All things being equal, though, it doesn’t add up. For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking: what the hell has writing really done for me? What am I getting back? Why the hell am I pushing myself so hard?
First, a bit of my thinking on this. Let me feed you the cynicism as well as the understanding: I know that there isn’t money and rarely fame. I know that writers tell each other they do it for the love of writing. I know you need to put in your time before you get anywhere. I know it’s a thing for passion and not for paycheck. I get it. Really, I do.
But I also don’t quite have enough money to let passion fill my belly. My blinders aren’t nearly so effective as to block out the return on investment of my effort. For a long time I wrote because writing felt better than not writing. I wrote because it was how I defined myself—I am a creative and a writer so I write. But—sometime between getting the MFA and now, that stopped being true. I don’t like thinking about writing or actually writing or revising. I think about the whole process, from start to finish, and then look at what I get out of it: a story maybe a dozen people will read and enjoy. Maybe even a few retweets/likes on Twitter, or another lit mag will ask me to send them some work so I can restart the whole process again.
And I’m writing this letter to you, writing life, because I don’t get it. I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do with you.
How am I supposed to convince myself that it’s worth it to struggle and dislike and doubt myself over and over just so I can send my stories out to the dozen who will read it? How should I make the scale balance on that one? It’s great to say that I write for the love of it, but what is there to love?
I wrote up a simple tweet yesterday: Thinking about taking a year off writing. I was met with a response that was overwhelmingly no no no wait. I don’t at all think that anyone who told me to reconsider were doing so out of fear or malice, but deep down I thought that part of staying in the writing life is to make sure that nobody pulls back the curtain. By denying how one-sided this thing is, we can deny that it’s crazy to be part of it—all of us, so long as all of us convince ourselves we can muscle through the nonsense of being a craftsperson who doesn’t get rewarded for their effort.
And I guess that’s the rub: it seems so incredibly wrong, but I can’t settle how much writers (especially, though other artists fall into the same trap) are willing to grind away at creation knowing they will get next to nothing out of it. I write this not as a revelation—I think we all know it—but more as an acknowledgement. I see it, writing life. I see what it is I signed up for.
So now I’m considering a break, and most folks have recommended something akin to that anyway (though, intelligently, suggesting I fill that time with something else creative to keep the exercise up). As I’m overseeing a lit mag, I think I won’t be hard pressed to keep myself occupied. That being said, I wonder if I’ll even be able to “give up” on writing—more likely it will be I stop submitting my work, I stop involvement in my writing group, and just generate material without any expectation of anyone else seeing it. That might be worth it. That might stop this race I’ve been having since 2011 and allow me to rest up a bit. At least get some of the cynicism out of my mind.
And I wonder how many writers experience this and keep it all in—how many of them punish themselves for not having what it takes. I think about Bukowski saying that if you need to work hard at it, you shouldn’t. I think about how dumb it is to think about Bukowski. I imagine myself not being a writer anymore and what I’d be instead (those who can, do. Those who can’t, become editors?). I realize this is probably just some funk that I’ve been ignoring for a few months, I need to face it head on and address it. I listen to my writerly friends telling me to suck it up or to take a break or to listen to what feels best.
The writing life isn’t an easy one. It’s not one that makes you feel like a master or like you’re getting back what you put into it. It’s not something that pays off—at least not in my experience (again—I’m super new at all of it, and I recognize that), and it’s not something that pays the bills.
I guess what it comes down to is I don’t know how to fix it, and I don’t know if I’d even have the energy to try had I a solution. Right now, it doesn’t seem to be worth it, and when I sit down to write I feel like I’m just lining myself up for another story to throw into the sea of already existing stories. Right at this moment I’m content in stepping away and seeing where that takes me, and whether that’s a month-long process (I suspect much longer, as I can go a month without writing by accident) or it’s a yearlong one, it’s one I think I’m itching to take.