On wanting it.

This post didn’t start out negative. I swear.

A writer friend of mine recently shared this slideshow that offers tidbits from the collection Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do. In the slideshow were several pearls of wisdom, but Susan Orlean’s quote is what I’d like to address today: 

“Wanting to be a writer is a huge percentage of what makes you be one. You have to want to do it really badly. You have to feel that’s what you’re supposed to be doing.”

That’s sure easy for a published author and New Yorker staff writer to say.

I originally thought this post was going to be about how reassured I felt by Orlean’s words—how I know now that I’m really a writer, because I want it so badly. I thought I was going to talk about how we can’t base our success on how much someone pays for our work.

And then I realized: that’s bullshit. Bullshit that I keep saying, because others keep saying it. So, one poor writer to another, let’s dispense with hollow platitudes for a moment. 

Wanting it isn’t enough sometimes.

The Orlean quote reminded me of a Saturday Night Live sketch from the 2008 election season, when Hillary was officially out of the running and Palin was the VP nominee for the GOP.


FEY AS PALIN: It just goes to show that anyone can be President. …All you have to do is want it.

POEHLER AS CLINTON: (LAUGHS) Yeah, you know, Sarah, looking back, if I could change one thing, I should have wanted it more.

The idea that “all you have to do is want to be a writer and you are one” falls in the same category as “anyone can succeed in America” and “you’re guaranteed a job with a college degree.” They are delusions that people with money keep perpetuating, to the continued frustration of hardworking have-nots: are we not trying hard enough? Do we not want it bad enough?

I know Orlean isn’t saying that “if you want it enough, you’ll be a successful writer and make a boatload of cash.” She’s saying, “if you want it, you already are a writer.” But this means next to nothing in the land of capitalism, household bills, and student loans.

There was a time when writers could make a living for themselves on their talents alone; they didn’t live like royalty, but they got by. But this age of freelancing and adjuncting and the ever-shrinking list of periodicals that publish and pay for original work, especially from emerging writers without a platform, makes that whole “I write for a living” thing seem pretty impossible. Very few places are able (read: willing) to pay writers a living wage, leaving us to piece together a full-time, zero-benefits schedule between community colleges and jobs off Craigslist. And who has the desire to do anything but sleep at the end of that kind of day?

I’m not going to feed you a line of bull that this life is easy or that it even feels worth the trouble every day. Sure, it’s important to believe in yourself. And, yes, even without any viable prospect for a life in which my writing pays for itself, I will continue to write and continue to try. But the longer we deny that money  matters, that being well compensated for our work is as important as the act of creating it is, I don’t see the landscape changing in our favor.

…And in honor of the Ladies of SNL theme: This post was brought to you by Debbie Downer. Womp womp.


Surviving the MFA

My  MFA program is working on a book to help grads of similar programs cope with life after graduation. I think it’s a stellar idea. Now, we just need to come up with a book to help survive the MFA program in the first place.

Then again, it’s not the MFA that’s making me rip out my hair; no, it’s my 40-hour-a-week day job. I’d love to know how others cope with the day-to-day feeling of “yes, this pays the bills, but it’s doing nothing for the creative process.” At the end of the day, I find it hard to even think about writing anything. My work is so left-brained that tapping into my imagination is a chore. 

A big part of my process, as I’ve learned while in this program, is letting the ideas marinate for a while in my head. I usually do the first few drafts mentally before sitting down to write. But with a full-time job occupying brain space every day from 7-4, this doesn’t happen. By the time my brain recharges from the day, it’s time for bed, and I end up tossing and turning for hours while my real work figures itself out.

There’s nothing to be done, of course. Even a book on the subject of balancing the MFA and a full-time job couldn’t help me. I need this job for lots of reasons, the main one being that it pays well and gives me the time off needed for school. And with nothing else on the horizon that would offer me a greater amount of brain space, I know I’ll be here for the remainder of the program. Unless I win the lottery. So, there’s always that completely reasonable hope.

Whores wanted!

A few weeks ago, I wrote what was arguably my greatest and most accurate Facebook status ever:

This revelation came from weeks of checking Craigslist every day for random writing gigs, in the futile attempt to find a winning combination that would allow me to quit my current job and throw myself into what I really love. Once in a while, I’d find something I could see myself doing, only to scroll down to the Compensation section to see: “no pay.” Then I’d weigh out in my head if my time was worth the experience it would give me, much like I imagine a prostitute weighs the pros and cons before getting into a john’s car. Oh, wait. Except prostitutes get paid. Whores do it for free.
But it’s Craigslist, I reminded myself. Craigslist is shady; I shouldn’t even be considering ghostwriting someone’s shitty memoir for free, but I am, because there’s nothing else. If only I had another place to look for writing jobs, a place that values writing and writers as indispensable members of society. 
So I started checking AWP and Poets & Writers: two sites that are routinely referenced as great resources during my twice-yearly writing residencies. These sites regularly post writing-related jobs from across the country. What did I find? More of the same.

Internship (Unpaid)

With a wider lens, a pattern emerged before me: what writers do isn’t worth paying for. We’re expected to work 40-60 hours per week, offering up our creative process and product, for nothing. And be grateful for the work. But how are we supposed to clothe and feed ourselves, get around or have a place to sleep? Apparently, these are just annoying and impolite questions that a whore doesn’t deserve to ask.

This got me thinking about the music business: more specifically, about the musicians who are pissed about their songs being pirated online. How much of our shit do we writers give away for nothing, in the name of experience or recognition? Who decided that their art was worth millions, or billions of dollars, while I sit in front of my computer trying to piece together 10 different freelance jobs to make ends meet, lowering your standards and rate of pay to steal the job away from another struggling writer? If that doesn’t make you feel like a whore, I don’t know what would. And, just like in the world of prostitution, there’s always a whore who will do it for less, or even for free in exchange for college credit.

In the end, all I can say is this: your work is worth paying for. Respect it and cherish it. Stop giving it away for free, because you’re fucking it up for everyone else.