Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Legitimacy of being a Writer

My friend, fellow blogger, and extraordinary cook Patti wrote a brave and beautiful post about how scary it is to actually say aloud that you want to write, that you're going to write, let alone to sit down and start writing.

Like Patti, I knew since I was old to enough to write that writing was what I wanted to do, but I wasted years being too afraid to say it aloud--or even to silently admit it to myself. It seemed too frivolous and somehow illegitimate...not a "real job" and certainly not something that I could do. So instead, like Patti and my critique partner and fellow blogger Allan Petersen, I went straight from college into the soul-sucking financial services industry. Despite the fact that I actively despised what I did and the fact that the financial services industry is morally questionable at best, I frittered away nearly a decade working in that arena.

Doing PR, marketing, and communications somehow seemed more realistic and legitimate than pursuing the abstract concept of being a writer. Working in financial services was, after all, so very tangible. So neat and tidy. Familiar. Safe. Common.

Even Emily Giffen, the New York Times bestselling author of five books, went to law school and entered the soul-sucking large law firm culture, because, as she says on her website's FAQ, "I think I had the sense that I had to get a “real” job first—that I couldn’t graduate and promptly sit down to write a novel...If I’m completely honest, I also think I went to school because it felt safer—a more certain path to measurable success. I think it always feels riskier and scarier to go after something you really love and want because the rejection and failure hurts more."

So what IS it about writing that is so scary? Is it, as Giffen says, the undeniable fact that it's scarier to pursue something you actually care about? Is it that our society deems science- and math-oriented jobs more admirable/legitimate/respectable? Or is it, perhaps, the undeniably daunting statistics that writers face? You don't have to look far to hear things like less than 1% of people that set out to write a book actually complete their books. And for that less-than-1% minority, the agent-securing process is even more improbable. Each literary agent receives between 5,000-20,000 queries from hopeful writers each year. Out that overwhelming number of approaches, they sign only a handful of new clients each year (2? 5? none?)

Facing stats like these, it's no wonder that so many of us scurry away to the mindless safety of a steady paycheck and 6'x6' cubicle.

And it would've been easy to loll away another decade or three, buoyed up by small corporate "wins" and distracted by the sheer busyness of life. But after nine years, I was finally fed up, worn down, miserable enough ready to make a change. Maybe it's something to do with the confidence that comes from being thirty (or therabouts). Allan bailed the year before and Patti the year after me. Emily Giffen apparently fled about seven years in. (And now that we're finally free from our corporate shackles, may we also follow in the amazing Ms. Giffen's writing footsteps someday!) 

Maybe we won't be successful in our writing pursuits. But at this point, I'd rather try and fail at something I really care about than never try, or worse, wither away at something I don't care about at all. If we don't go for it now, then when?


  1. Amen to that! I always think, what will I care about when I'm 80? That I was too scared to try or that I gave it a go? I think I will regret if I don't give it a shot, and even if my kids find some dusty manuscript in my closet when I die (or who knows, maybe there won't be paper then), then at least they'll have something I did, shitty or not.

  2. EXACTLY!! I recently read an excerpt from a book by a hospice nurse about what she's learned as she's spent a career with people as they died. She said the #1 thing they said was that they wished they had the courage to live the life they WANTED to live instead of what was expected of them. YES!