Last week I got an email from a young writer acquaintance asking for advice about fellowships and residencies and pushing through writer’s block. As we went back and forth, I asked questions about what she was working on, what she was reading, why she thought she was stuck. Turns out she has a big, fat obsession with finishing the book and finding an agent before her clock strikes 28. There’s more, of course - a withholding parent, and the idea that the story is a high-concept goldmine that will fund her retirement. Basically every creativity-killing thing that could be heaped on that poor little WIP.
But the thing that struck me most deeply was the plaintive, painful idea that if she could just finish the book, secure an agent and sell the fucking thing to a major publisher, that she would have something to show for herself and would therefore be okay.
I get it. I do. But it’s a fucking crock of shit. I don’t know one single writer whose life was transformed upon publication. I know a National Book Award winner who goes into a faceplant every time a piece is rejected, and a brilliant YA writer on her seventh book who worries that every sale is going to be her last. And I know so many published, award-winning writers who can’t sell their second or third or fifth books and have to do all kinds of things they loathe to make money. I know published writers who still make really bad romantic choices, and published writers who still have shitty or complicated or nonexistent relationships with their parents or their spouses or their children. I know published writers who can’t pay their taxes or their rent or their student loans, who cry themselves to sleep some nights, or drink too much, or can’t drink at all anymore and instead treat waiters and retail clerks badly and talk shit about other writers, but never to their faces.
I didn’t say any of that to her. What I did say was that I thought she was mixing up self-worth, success, and publishing with the act of writing, which isn’t about any of those things. Not one.
Sometimes I get to say to someone else the thing I most need to hear.