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.

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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.

debbie

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Relax, everyone: I’ve figured out the problem with SNL.

It’s okay. You can all stop tearing out your hair. I’ve got this.

Recently, my wife and I burned through some of the latest episodes of Saturday Night Live. There was some great potential in the hosts: Kristen Wiig, Zack Galifinakis, even Jennifer Lawrence, who seems pretty naturally hilarious. And while each episode had a sketch or two that drew a soft chuckle, I was left mostly with disappointment. And anger. Yes: anger.

Why was I angry? On the simplest level, I was angry because these comedians have a responsibility to make me laugh, and they blew it. Three times in a row. And they’ve been blowing it season after season, if I may be so bold. But underneath the anger was frustration; I couldn’t put my finger on why it was so bad. Of course, I knew it was the writing; the talent is there, if sorely underused (*cough* Kate McKinnon *cough*). But I couldn’t seem to nail down what exactly had changed, until this morning.

From the seventies until the departure of Comedy Writing Genius Tina Fey, Saturday Night Live gave us art to imitate in life. Each week, they created new avenues of humor through wild characters and scenarios we couldn’t have dreamed: A door-to-door shark serial killer, a Catholic school girl with anger management problems and a penchant for Lifetime movie monologues, Samurai warriors who run a deli. These comedians were in the business of changing, and deciding, what was funny in America. They gave us new things to laugh at and added a whole slew of catchphrases and inside jokes to pop culture. We never knew what they were going to determine was funny on any given Saturday night, but it almost always was. And even if it wasn’t, at least it was something different.

But now, life imitates art…and life isn’t all that interesting. The majority of each episode is packed with Internet humor that’s already weeks old, so the whole show ends up looking like one big live-action meme. The whole Internet has already discussed and bagged on rich housewives, Game of Thrones, and cougars. What could the writers at SNL possibly add to the discussion that is new and, more importantly, funny?

This doesn’t mean that everything the other writers and casts have created was genius, or original. Sure, there were pop culture references and parodies and impressions. But now, instead of SNL giving us inside jokes, they’re trying to keep up with the online community’s humor attention span, and it’s just not possible. For instance: when Seth MacFarlane hosted (a genius writer who really could have been tapped), they did a “Gangnam Style” sketch. Really? The video is old as soon as you see it.  Face it: any reference you make to any online craze is just making you look old and behind the times.

So stop trying to keep up with stuff that isn’t that funny anyway! (Yes, I’m now talking directly to you, SNL). Nothing online is; we see it, we snicker to ourselves, we move on. You’ve forgotten your responsibility to decide what makes us laugh and are resting instead on what you know already has. But we don’t laugh that hard at any of it, and–speaking for myself–kind of hate all of it, deep-down. As in seasons past, you shine when you do something out-of-the-box and fresh: new characters, new scenarios. The highlight of the Kristen Wiig episode wasn’t the ten-year-old Ring reference; it was the (admittedly hard-to-watch) acupuncture sketch: three women (and their straight man) really going for it. No Internet inside jokes, no dead horses.

For the future of humor in America, I beg you: take back the reins. We’re idiots. We don’t know what’s funny. It’s your job to show us.