I‘VE JUST FINISHED On Writing. It’s been years since I’ve read one of your books, and I enjoyed this one enough that I’ll be reading another soon.
We have some things in common. Like you, I started a satirical magazine in high school. Mine was better received by staff than yours, owing I suspect to the principle that satire is a mirror in which we see the reflection of all faces but our own. I stopped writing satire for this reason, which from your perspective will appear as an irony. The point is that satire will either provoke your targets or it won’t, and whatever the outcome you’ll wonder if the buck was worth the bang, or lack of it.
In grade five I launched the first of several serial publications. At 13, I had a Gestetner in my bedroom. I made enough money in a typical month to take a date to the movies, not that I had many of those. In graduate school, my quarterly literary journal, ASH, was in stores across Canada. (A few American retailers, and a Wisconsin library, took it up as well.) This was a more ambitious project, and I was lucky if an issue recovered my costs. No matter: I loved what I was doing.
In 1998, while you were drafting On Writing, I folded ASH and left my Ph.D. program. I was broke and miserable, and my girlfriend and I needed a change. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew that it wasn’t more years of teaching grammar to bored business and pre-med students. So I applied for every job that came along, and eleven months later I was hired by a not-for-profit in Ottawa.
My communications office job involved a good deal of writing, and for the first time in my life I was well paid. I wrote press releases and speeches, reports and briefings, and even some magazine articles. Nothing glamorous, but I was writing.
My name wasn’t on the many things I wrote in the twelve years I did this job. I was, however, working on my chops and doing something I deemed worthwhile. I had work under my name published in some small literary magazines. I didn’t need to make money from this, and it’s a good thing, because nobody was offering. Writing was a pleasure, and it was enough for me to see my name in print.
That was years ago, and things have changed. I’ve been far too long at it for labels like young or beginning writer. “Aspiring” is accurate enough, but at my age it sounds weird.
I didn’t come to your book for tips on mastering the mechanics of prose. I’ve more than done my work in that area, although I’m not so obtuse that I fail to see the value of a refresher course: the primate tendency is to take the path of least resistance and to re-learn all the old, bad habits. What I wanted was a glimpse into the machinery of your success. Plunder, in a word.
As I write this draft, I’m a few days from my 49th birthday. The company shut down a couple years ago, and my office job evaporated. Around that time, two national newspapers took me up, as an editorialist, but only for exposure. I have a blog, and I write every day. I published two books this year. At first glance, you’d say I was doing well.
My ambition is and always has been to build an audience for the writing I produce under my name, and to make a living at it. After thirty years of work, I’m a long way from that.
Your book speaks about joy, and having read it I realize it’s been some time since I’ve felt that in relation to writing. It was easier in my 20s and 30s to maintain that I wrote “for the love of it.” Time was on my side, and optimism made sense. When I received a rejection letter and couldn’t pay the bills, I could tell myself one day. You live and work, and you soldier yourself through the failures, and one day remains as far off as ever. So of course you do what’s necessary, arranging your affairs so you can earn and write.
I agree with you that we writers shouldn’t write for money, but I find it hard to believe that you write only on account of the joy. I’d believe you if that’s all that you’d ever had, and all you ever likely would have. The truth is you could do your job without joy, but not without money. You would have quit years ago, like so many of my writer friends, or you’d have taken up a job that exhausts you and leaves you only the time and energy for a short story here, a dabbling with your novel-in-progress there. I know that’s how you started out—but, again, there’s a gulf between your twenties and your forties. I may be wrong about you. I’m going by my decades of experience, which needless to say are not your experiences.
On my desk there’s a draft of what I’d been thinking of as my last piece of writing. I planned to honour the voice in my head that says I’m wasting my time, that my ambitions as a writer can only worsen the financial security of my family. I haven’t quit after all, although the voice is still there.
Your book reminded me of more than the rules of grammar and the principles of good prose. Writing, you assert, is a privilege. Fame, riches, admiration and accolades are doubtless nice (I wouldn’t know) but we writers have no special claim to them. Writing has to be about something that will keep us going in the absence of these things, or one day we will stop. It’s only rational, if the work is not paying some kind of dividend.
Why do I write? Because I’ve a daimon which insists I’m on an unfinished journey. I’m no New York Times best-seller and likely never will be. So what? my daimon says: there’s something you have to do, and you haven’t done it yet.
Maybe that’s my version of joy—doing what I was wired to do. There are many days I wish I’d been wired for something else: plumbing, accounting, gardening. It seems to me that growing a nice garden and balancing a ledger is good enough, whereas it’s never good enough, for me at least, to write well.
There has to be something more: readers, a community of writers, debate, dialogue. A little income, even a token, would be nice. Something. In this age of social media, I’m struck by how isolated the writing life actually is. We spend our days at a computer. The words flow into the grid, and after that who knows what becomes of them. It can go on this way for weeks, months, and years.
The inner voice, meanwhile, asks are you sure this is worth the time and the effort? You could be doing so many other things. I suppose I read your book hoping it would tip my resolve, one way or the other. The internal critic enjoins me to come to my senses, and my gut insists that I persevere. Both, I think, are telling me that I’m insufficiently daring, that I need to take more risks, and that I have not dug nearly deep enough or worked nearly hard enough.
There are thousands, maybe millions of writers just like me. We come to your book hoping to find magic, knowing there is no magic to be had. Writing is a job, but the world isn’t advertising for more labourers. You must create your own demand, your own market, your own product, and your own universe. That’s the great thing about writing, and it’s the terrifying thing as well.
So I’m breaking new ground, revisiting the books that made me love writing in the first place and, as you put it, digging for fossils. Needless to say I don’t know, and I can’t know, where my efforts will take me. I have a supportive partner. She gave me a birthday card in which she’d written that the best is yet to come, and that my efforts will pay off. It’s a kind and encouraging notion, but we both understand that life owes us nothing.
Your book has put some wind under the wings, and I thank you for that, as well as for your reminder that there’s something called pleasure. There is more to writing than trying to sell books. Not that I think I can ever stop caring about this, or even should stop—but perhaps I can care more about some other things, too. Like every other writer out there, I want joy, and I want to write, and I want to feel in the end that my work has been worthwhile.