The Truth About Being A Writer (Hint: You Don’t Have To Be Unhappy)



Ten minutes before my agent called to tell me she’d sold my first novel, I was standing in our community garden watching a hawk murder a dove. It was clear that this was an omen of some kind, although I didn’t know what kind of omen it was. That must have been the moment when my agent received the offer for my novel, so it was the moment when I ceased to be an aspiring writer and became a real writer. I had looked forward to that transformation my whole life.

I didn’t know at the time if I was the hawk or the dove, or what that gruesome spectacle could mean, and I still don’t know, because I don’t know what it means to be a writer. In one sense, being a writer is very much like being an aspiring writer. I write each morning, as I did before, and at other times I do other things, as I also did before. There was no transformation. The main difference is that there are books out there with my name on them. Very good. None of them are visible to me from where I’m sitting right now, at my desk in the attic, and it’s as if they don’t exist.

And yet I devoted so much time, in the old days, to thinking about what it would be like to be a writer. How different everything would be. I imagined that I would drink all the time and break stuff and cause trouble. It would be a romantic and destructive life. But I was doing that anyway—drinking and breaking stuff and causing trouble—and there was nothing romantic about it. Maybe my real hope was that being a writer would make it okay to behave this way. Being a writer would excuse my behavior. And if I knew in my heart that one day I would be a writer, then my behavior was also excusable in the present, even though the transformation hadn’t happened yet.

I don’t drink anymore, or break stuff, and I try not to cause trouble.

But if I’m not a deadbeat after all, being a writer does mean doing a kind of work that doesn’t look much like work, and then just sort of wandering around in the yard, so I do look like a deadbeat.

And being a writer also means, for me and for almost all writers, being poor. I was prepared for this aspect of the experience, but it still smarts. I get paid small amounts at irregular and widely-spaced intervals. It’s like being unemployed and sometimes winning a little bit on a scratch ticket.

By the same token, being a writer means struggling to pay for healthcare. I have to buy insurance on the individual market, and before the ACA, when we were living in Florida, no one would insure me—I was a risk, because of the recklessness of my younger days. Florida did not expand Medicaid either, which meant that things were still hard even after the ACA went into effect. There are complexities here that I don’t understand. I do know that our Florida insurance cost seven times what our Massachusetts insurance now costs, and the coverage was worse.

What else, what else?

Being a writer is a little bit like being insane, since I spend a lot of time anguishing over problems that involve people who don’t exist doing imaginary things in places that aren’t real.

I worried that being a writer would mean never getting close to anyone, never getting married, never having kids. I thought that attachments of that kind would make it impossible to carve out the psychological space a writer needs. Eventually I realized that the problem was not attachment in the abstract but the person to whom you’re attached. Thank God! You shouldn’t marry someone who makes you feel trapped, whether you’re a writer or not. It seems obvious now. My own partner—herself a writer—opens the world up for me.

Something else I didn’t anticipate: Being a writer means creating a product—a mass-produced article of commerce. It means trying to get people to buy that product, although it also means feeling guilty about trying to get people to buy that product. Isn’t commerce unseemly? Isn’t art all about a striving after something bigger and more meaningful?

Being a writer means having complex feelings about other, more successful contemporary writers.

But over and above all of that, there’s this: I worried, when I was an aspiring writer, that being a real writer would mean never being happy. That isn’t because writing had ever made me unhappy but because I thought it was supposed to make me unhappy. Why? Because I’d heard older writers talk endlessly about how hard writing was, and how miserable it made them.

I have not had this experience. Being a writer is easy. Every day, I do the thing that I have always wanted to do—the thing I believe I was put on earth to do. And I do it in gym-shorts, in the comfort of my own home. Sometimes I eat a piece of toast with jam on it. My family crashes around downstairs. As an MFA-friend joked at some public event: “Being a writer is hard? Being a fucking coal-miner is hard.”