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The Writer’s Life? Only You Know

April 16, 2011

We’re so curious, aren’t we? We’re all at that place, one time or another, in our careers–voyeuristic writer wannabes checking out how everybody else does it. For some of us, it’s at the very beginning of becoming that writer, when we’re trying to find a model, a structure or lifestyle that we can latch on to, call our own, even if we’ll never admit to someone else that we’ve adopted a Twainian or Hemingway-esque lifestyle. For others, it’s later in the process, when we feel derailed and we’re looking for a lifeline, an anchor that’s proven to work. We feel that, if they were successful with that writer’s life, then it’s just gotta work for me, too. It has to.

In the end, though, we find that none of them is that perfect fit we’ve been looking for. And why? Well, the truth is, we’re trying to fit their finely defined prescription of writing success to our own lives, and there are just too many variables in the dark shadows of those writers’ lives that we’ll never know about, making it virtually impossible to make their lives a blueprint for our own success.

In May of 1950, when Lillian Ross spent two days with Ernest Hemingway and then subsequently published her candid experiences with him in The New Yorker, she faced such wrath and disdain for unveiling the less romantic side to the life of the American writer. Ross would write years later that she didn’t know any better; she was just trying to get the story and report it accurately to prove she could handle the job and tread water along with the other reporters on assignment. What Ross did instead was reveal some of those dark shadows that would later provide some understanding to the way Hemingway tragically ended his life.

Suddenly to all the readers of The New Yorker and the myriad writers taking a sneak-peak at Ross’ inside view of one of the literary greats, the glamorous image of the writer’s life was nothing like they had all believed it might be.

Still, writers at all levels like to dream; they like to hold dearly to the ideal of book signings, large advances, and huge rooms to write great American novels. Not one writer will tell you that he or she got there by trying to be somebody else. In the end, each of them realized that the writer’s life is dark, personal, and downright scary. It has to be to create works of beauty that may someday stand the test of time.

Now, I know there are some of you who might argue that this fame and fortune is not for you, and I couldn’t agree more. Most of us are not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to live that kind of life. However, the truth is that your style, your approach, your writing life is not dictated by your success; it’s dictated by who you are and what works best for you.

Here’s a good example. A student of mine approaches me one day after class, absolutely obsessed with my “romantic” writing life. “I want to be just like you,” he says. “You’ve got it all–the connections, the blogs and websites, and the published pieces. I’m using your life as a model to inspire me to write, publish, and live authentically.”

I’m proud of this guy for wanting to write and publish, and I’m flattered at the words he’s used to express my writing and the effect it is having on him. What I really want to tell him is that, sometimes I get my greatest ideas when I’m cleaning the litter box, or that most of my entries in my daybook are negative and focused on how horrible a writer I am. Or maybe what I absolutely want to tell him is that I battle fear, anxiety, and depression every day about the two and a half books that I’ve already written but not yet published. I take great pains to avoid them, afraid of what that confrontation might look like.

I can spin a magical writing life for you based on my accomplishments, but that is doing you no more good than telling you the writing fairy will be visiting you shortly to sprinkle you with ideas and inspirations.

You can’t become a writer by building the best library or buying a Mont Blanc fountain pen. Purchasing Levenger paper is a luxuriously wonderful treat, but it won’t do a damn thing about your dependency on the passive voice. The writer’s life is something that is defined by what you do, not by what you want to do. It’s not a “build it and I will write” movie scene; it’s just not that romantic.

So: If you really want to know what the writer’s life is like for you, I have only one piece of advice.

Write every day, and you will find out.

  1. April 16, 2011 9:14 am

    As teachers, we often are models for students, so your student’s words don’t surprise me. As writers, that’s often what we must settle for as fame and fortune elude us.

  2. April 16, 2011 11:52 am

    I found that out almost as soon as I started writing and researching the writer’s life. I still think the romance is in the writing, no matter how one goes about it or where. 🙂 Thanks for posting!

  3. April 18, 2011 1:32 am

    I agree, it’s really up to me. But as you say at the beginning, we’re all curious and I like to read about other people’s lives, be they fictitious or real.

  4. S H James permalink
    April 18, 2011 8:04 pm

    You got it, the dream, the reality and the anxiety over my 2 1\2 books not yet published too.

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