One of my favorite lines about writing comes from the lips of the sleazy American entertainment lawyer in Bertolucci’s bohemian film Stealing Beauty. Upon meeting the daughter of a famous poet, the lawyer muses, “I think it would be great to just sit around all day and…express yourself.” Well, so do a lot of writers, but, as you’ll see, that’s not exactly what being a writer is all about.
Grand misconception #1: writing is an easy career
If you think that culling original, well-turned and beautiful phrases from the recesses of your imagination, mining the depths of your failed relationships, your childhood traumas, your life’s tragedies and triumphs while staring out the window on a dreary Tuesday is easy, try another career. Writing is hard. It’s so hard that writers go to great lengths to trick and train themselves into writing. They develop habits that they enslave themselves to in order to force themselves to carve out time in their day to write.
Most professional writers set a daily schedule and heed it meticulously. Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Haruki Murakami all woke up at the same time every day and went through the same writing rituals every day, without fail. Many writers set quotas for themselves and don’t do anything else but write until their quota has been met: Norman Mailer, William Golding and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 3,000 words a day, Stephen King writes 2,000 and Thomas Wolfe wrote 1,800. They practice extreme anti-procrastination methods in order to keep themselves writing. In order to meet a deadline for the delivery of his book The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo locked up his clothes to make sure he didn’t leave the house until he had finished his day’s quota.
Even fictionalized versions of writers tend to be tortured. Have you ever seen Michael Douglas in such a pathetic role as when he plays the writer and teacher Grady Tripp in the film Wonder Boys? As the pages of his manuscript pile up, but no closer to finishing his book, he clings to his habit of donning a beat-up old bath robe as part of his writing process.
Or, taking things to the extreme, what about Jack Nicholson’s psychopathic character Jack Torrance in The Shining who became the caretaker of an isolated hotel for the winter so he can have time to work on his writing. As time passes, the situation deteriorates until his wife discovers that for months he’s been typing the same creepy line over and over again, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. In the end he attempts to murder his wife and son with an axe. Just sayin’.
Grand Misconception #2: if I become a writer, I’ll have many friends and will be famous
What about book tours, giving book readings and book signings? Winning awards and prizes? Becoming the “voice of your generation”? Those moments come to few writers if they come at all. Many writers insist that in order to be successful, you have to derive your sense of success from the process itself. It can’t be because of recognition, fame or money. And if that’s what you’re looking for, find another profession. Also, writing is a mainly solitary career, with most of it spent in moments of well-defended isolation, rattling your brain for some coherent thoughts and then getting it on the page before you become interrupted by life’s distractions.
Grand Misconception #3: if I become a writer, I’ll be rich
Writing and job satisfaction don’t exactly go hand-in-hand. If it did, there wouldn’t be so many alcoholic, drug addicted, suicidal writers (see Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful TED speech Your Elusive Creative Genius). And part of that is because writing is an art, but, because we live in a world where artists must sell and commercialize their art in order to eat, it is also a profession. Many writers live with relatively unstable financial situations.
Unless you’ve written a best-seller that’s turned into a blockbuster movie like Stephen King, Dan Brown, John Grisham, J.K. Rowling or Elizabeth Gilbert, then it’s best you get prepared for a bit of a roller-coaster ride in terms of finances. If you manage to get a book contract, you’ll likely get an advance. That advance may be small or generous. Afterwards, you’ll get royalties from the sales, assuming it sells. And when that money begins to dwindle after the initial release, then you’re left wading in shallow water until your next book.
Depending on writing for money is a Catch-22. It’s what most writers dream of, quitting their day job and writing for a living. But, at the same time, it can lead to incredible financial instability that many writers struggle to manage. In fact, there are few published writers who only write books. Most writers have other gigs too, such as teaching writing workshops, freelance writing for magazines and journals or editing other people’s writing. Check out this link on writer’s earnings in the UK and the US to get an idea of the average writer’s salary.
Grand Misconception #4: if I become a writer, people will love my work
Many writers and artists in general are drawn to the creative arts because of their sensitivity. This is the irony of signing up for a career that depends on you exposing your deepest thoughts and feelings and offering it to the world. Many writers have heart-wrenching stories to tell about sending out their work for years and years before they ever got a “Yes.” Some of them save their rejection slips the way that some people save love letters from past relationships. If you can’t handle having your work rejected (and it will be rejected, no matter how good it is, because you won’t be everyone’s cup of tea), then you’ll have a very difficult time being successful as a writer.
Most published writers have had to summon brutal amounts of self-confidence and courage in order to keep knocking on doors to see if someone would accept their work. And that’s before you’re even published. Then, once published, there are the critics. Who may love you or hate you. Or both. While rejection slips are whispered “No”’s, privately addressed to you, a review puts your work and you on public display for dissection. And people read it. For fun. Kurt Vonnegut had this to say about literary critics: “I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.”
So, am I saying you should hang up your dreams of becoming a writer? No, I’m saying that writing is hard work and will likely fill you with moments of dread, despair and self-doubt. But, though the legions of writers out there share these same struggles in the pursuit of their art, they also share something else: the immense gratification of self-expression and creation.