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.