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So You Want to be a Writer

I was once interviewed on a podcast, conducted by a writer friend of mine. When she asked me what piece of advice I could give to any new wannabe writer, she seemed a little surprised when I answered with three words: Don't do it. I meant those words then and I would repeat them if asked the same question now. If you are a wannabe writer, promptly put such nonsense out of your head. Forget about it. Like Nancy Reagan said, just say no.

You think you'll write a bestseller? You won't. You think you'll get rich and famous? You won't. To be a writer who actually wants people to read what you write is a fool's quest. You would be opening yourself up to a world of disappointment and misery. Spare yourself—If you can.

If you can possibly do something else for a living, do it. Anything else. Any other choice would be preferable. If you have a choice.

William Faulkner didn't have a choice. While he was supposed to be working some ditch-digging job, and he would flip his wheelbarrow upside-down and use it for a desk to write upon, having always pen and paper on his person for that reason, he didn't have a choice. He was compelled to write.

Benjamin Thomas called the passion for collecting books “a gentle madness”. The same can be said of the compulsion to write books—only the madness in that case isn't quite as gentle. To quote Faulkner again: “He [the writer] has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate...”

Friends, that is what it takes. If you aren't possessed by that kind of drive, if you aren't that plain damn crazy, forget about writing. You don't want to venture off the map to the terra incognita where those monsters dwell.

I'm like Faulkner. I never had a choice. I could've become an engineer or something. I would have made more money. I would also have gone completely mad hatter insane. Even if I'd somehow managed to remain somewhat in touch with reality, I would've been miserable. I could never be content, doing anything else. I have sacrificed honor, pride, decency, security, and happiness at various times in pursuit of my dream.

Relying on someone else to put food in your belly when all you have to show for your hard work is a stack of paper and none of those pieces of paper is a dollar bill. That'll take care of your pride and your honor. Surely a decent person wouldn't take advantage of another that way, right? But the writer would. Faulkner did, and this writer did.

So, scratch honor, pride, and decency off the list. Security? That's a joke. If you're looking to bring in the rent money with something you've written, any sense of security you might conjure is purely illusory. And an imaginary net won't interrupt your swan-dive to the concrete.

That leaves happiness. This is the catch-22. While pursuit of the dream of being a successful writer will make you miserable at times. To do it despite the costs is the only thing that allows any glimpses of happiness. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. But being damned for doing it at least won't damn you to a hell of unfulfillment. Poverty, maybe. Lack of self-esteem. Forced humility. But not unfulfillment.

To clarify, then, what advice would I give to the wannabe? I can distill it down to one word: QUIT.

If you're truly a writer, you're not a wannabe. Because people don't want to be writers; they either are, or they aren't. They might be a good one or they might be a bad one. They might be one who has never started writing, and who has a long, long way to go to even reach mediocrity. (Been there, done that. Trust me.) They might be a new writer, but they're not a wannabe writer. Because “being a writer” is never a choice.

I was always a writer. Not a good one, nor a successful one, but one for whom writing was never a choice. Since I had to do it, I figured I should probably try to get good at it. Since I only ever had one prospective partner at the dance, I figured I needed to learn the steps. Dance, boy! Dance! And I did.

If you can do anything else, do that instead. I've given you my one word of advice. If you're one of the unfortunates who is “anguished” and can have “no peace” if'n you don't write--if you're a Faulkner or a WJR Miller, bless your heart--I offer a different word of advice: DANCE.

And get yourself a good pair of shoes, because you're going to be doing a lot of it.

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