A Calling's a Calling
Someone's finally getting real.
That's what I first felt, reading Don Lee's Rumpus essay itemizing the brutal realities of the writing life.
Lee lays it down hard: “Pretty much everything about it – the act of writing, the act of publishing, especially the act of promoting – is miserable. And it only gets worse as the years unfurl.”
Acknowledging upfront that his own writing has made a bit of money as well as given him a solid teaching career with a decent salary and benefits, Lee names the sibling truths:
• Making the work is a perilous journey, haunted, self-doubting.
• Self-promotion, “pressure to perform and be charming and sell [oneself],” can be agonizing.
So can waiting for reviews, receiving bad reviews, or (worst?) no reviews.
Lee notes that “being a midlist writer is the most tenuous position in publishing...” He may not have considered how it feels to be a small press/literary writer, whose sales and fan base seldom register on any agent's or publisher's radar.
No matter. Lee soon nails the bottom-line question:
“Why do I keep doing this to myself if it’s so painful, if there are so few rewards...? Why...continue? What’s the point?”
Lee had a friend, the late Richard Yates, whose work was beautiful and important – but unknown except to a few literati until after his death. As a young writer, Lee hung out with Yates, and was moved by Yates' willingness to look at, and critique, Lee's work.
Despite his obscurity, Yates kept writing.
“[R]eligiously,” Lee says, “[Yates] sat down to write every day, despite being convinced that he was a failure, that he would be forgotten.” This, declares Lee, “probably taught me more about being a writer than anyone else.”
“It was who he was,” Lee adds. “He kept writing, even when there were so few rewards...even when the work was hard, and lonely, and unfulfilling. It was his life. It was his calling.”
And while I've written a whole book of essays about this (Because You Have To: A Writing Life) I confess that Lee's reflections reawakened in me a bitterly familiar, internal riddle. Though I've mustered a fine body of work through the graces of small, literary presses, and been fortunate to receive grants, fellowships, and awards, I've always had to fight furiously to get my books accepted for publication, promoted, and reviewed. I could certainly quit at any time. My work may be forgotten. What keeps me (or anyone) pushing on?
The answer, I think, is that in addition to Lee’s observation about writing being a calling, there are actual compensations to relish in the course of a writing life.
I realized this when, while reading Lee's piece, I heard myself murmur, Wait. Wait. There are good parts. And I need them.
Four categories occur to me.
One is obvious from Lee's story of Yates: connection, however imperfect, with fellow writers. Yes, many of us are hot messes: damaged brooders, introverts, shy. We do, though, find occasional relief spending time with a few writing friends – as few as one or two. They may be near or far. The camaraderie may be edgy, coded, spasmodic. But we tend to love being “met and seen” even briefly; to feel common ground, common language with other seekers. (Seeking's what a writer does, to the last.) In the best scenarios we find mentors and teachers who become friends. Their generosity – like Yates' toward Lee – inspires.
A parallel gift – no surprise – is the limitless richness of reading. By this I mean reading like a writer: sifting, analyzing craft – finding gold. It happens often enough to keep us questing for more. I send fan notes to writers I admire. Sometimes I hear back. Often they're crazy-grateful to receive an encouraging word. Every miraculous book is the upshot of a courageous choice by each author not to quit, is it not? As the superb writer William Maxwell said, “All I ask of life is the privilege of being able to read.”
Here's a third upside: the pleasure of making work. Lee is right about the “inherent terror in the process...” But I'm betting Lee would concede that after enough practice, unease becomes a reliable symptom of productivity. I'm sure that I have “something going on” when I feel slightly sick and lost – a bit like forgetting where the car is parked. At the same time, I feel a sort of heartburn of excitement that I'm compelled to “follow down.”
Truth? I am happiest at the keyboard. I can think then. Thinking on the page is what writing amounts to. I'm not saying all problems get solved. But something genuine happens, something irreversible. One is better for it – eventually. One learns to trust that.
Finally, there's consolation simply in identifying as a writer. It's both a way of being in the world and a response to the world. Identifying as a writer shelters, defines, and directs us – supplies a special world to us. It gives us what I'd have to call an organizing trajectory: like a sovereign guild, the collective writerly identity legitimizes our entire path from apprenticeship to maturity, formalizing the particular dignity of the artisan: This is what I make. It also gives us compassion for the poignancy of human striving. Given life? We write.
The fact is, most writers are forced to square off early with Lee's tenets: No money, no fame, no aesthetic legacy. At the same time? We get meaning, engagement, purposiveness, some excellent friendships – and if we're lucky, a few products we actually like.
No one's claiming those elements aren't found elsewhere, through other endeavors. But a calling's a calling. So given the choice, I find myself – like Lee, like so many others – unable to forfeit The Life. Again and again, for a constellation of strange, vital reasons, we choose it.
A test? Suggest to any writer railing against it, that they quit.
See what happens.