The Kind Profession

James Dashner’s career is in many ways a prototype for a lot of the writers I have interviewed. While his breakout YA title The Maze Runner is his first to be published by a major house, he is the author of six novels previously published by small independent presses. This “overnight” success has been writing and publishing steadily for ten years.

What’s more, Dashner knew he wanted to be a writer while he was in college, but like a lot of young men and women bit by the fiction bug, he felt he should get a degree in something practical. In Dashner’s case, this was accounting, and for eight years he was a practicing accountant. When Random House made a generous offer for The Maze Runner, no tears were shed in the Dashner household as James handed in his resignation letter.

Dashner’s story illustrates an aspect unique to the life of the artist. For whatever reason, you can make a living as an accountant without ever wanting to be an accountant. The same is true of lawyers, doctors, and journalists, to say nothing of waiters, carpenters, and housepainters. You cannot, however, make a living as a writer, painter, or actor unless you absolutely want to be a writer, painter, or actor.

I believe this requirement is why young artists are so often warned that their profession is so difficult to break into—compared to other professions, this is certainly true. This filtering system is sometimes seen as harsh and unkind, but in fact the arts’ unforgiving nature is actually a great kindness. Why should anyone do anything they don’t absolutely want to do? Why should anyone waste their time with something in which they’re only somewhat interested while around the corner lies something authentically interesting?

Slush piles and agents’ in-drawers are filled with stories and queries by men and women who don’t actually want to be writers. This is not a crime, it is simply a product of human beings’ propensity to try their hand at things that look interesting or promising from a distance. Enough rejections and these people eventually turn away. Sadly, they might feel like failures, but in truth they have not failed at anything, they have only taken another step toward what truly interests them most.

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