Everybody wants to be a writer. But why?
4 years ago, YouGov did a survey for the most desirable job amongst the British. 60% said they wanted to be an author. Given, 32% said it would be the last thing they would ever want to do. Nonetheless, being an author is the new star of our times. [Being an author actually ranked 29% higher than wanting to be a movie star.]
‘Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives. The English reading public explains the reason why.’
Playing with Words
My first thought at the YouGov poll or anybody that says they want to write a novel is:
‘Really? That many people want to write a novel?’
Of course, they don’t. They want to have written a novel. To already have it done. To want to write a novel is much different than wanting to have one already written under your name. Even today, there are people ghostwriting novels for others.
Why shut yourself away for months and get more involved in your character's life than your own?
Why spend weeks of doing research on something that may not even be noticed?
Why do all this work knowing it will most likely lead to endless negative comments, reviews, and feedback?
That’s assuming you can beat the crippling self-doubt of asking yourself if it is all a waste of time and what does it even mean along the way.
There’s a big difference between a story and a novel.
So people want to have written a novel. That’s nice. It’s like wanting to have run a marathon. The achievement and bragging rights of having completed such a challenge. Or perhaps they were just bored.
But we can all write a novel. All we have to do is sit down and write, right? It seems so accessible. Yet, when people start to sit down to write, they begin to realize it is more than just: ‘I have a great story and I know how to write words.’
They will begin the self-doubting process:
‘What am I doing?’
‘I’ve told people I’m doing this?’
‘I can’t think of anything, how does the novel write itself?’
‘What does it take to write a great novel?’
‘Why do people really want to write novels?’
‘I have such a great idea, but I just can’t put it into words long enough for a novel.’
‘I don’t have any fans, what’s the point?’
So, there are stories, and there are novels. Between a would-be novelist and a novelist are months of hard work and your sense of self being crucified and resurrected. Most people don’t make it to the resurrection part.
To write a novel is to really care about the craft. To want to put the work into it. When you can remember the pain of blank pages and tough edits. The joy and sorrows of watching your characters grow as you write them. The hidden sub-themes and how the protagonist goes from anti-hero to hero back to anti-hero in a way the reader can feel and relate to in a believable way.
Most people want to have written a novel, but there are very few who actually want to write one.
Yet, they do exist.
It is a perplexing concept to ponder, why do so many people want to write? No doubt, many are SEO geeks and design nerds just wanting to get rich off of a 6-figure blog. We won’t talk about those types today but focus on the more creatively-ambitious novel writers.
There are so many quotes and cliches about writing from great writers. Is it possible that people that want to write have little idea about the reality of the job or simply don’t read enough to hear what the greats have actually said about the reason they write (and the reason they wish they could do something else)?
Specifically about novelists, one of the great British writers, George Orwell, wrote:
‘All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’
Will most people admit that about themselves? Would most people knowingly choose to struggle with that? I have to agree with Orwell; not unless you had no other choice.
He asked, ‘What makes a man a writer?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘it's simple. You either get it down on paper, or jump off a bridge.’
- Charles Bukowski
Ah, but being a writer. It’s so romantic, so artistic. It isn’t about being possessed by some demon that will lead to your death unless you bleed it out on the page. It’s rainbows and butterflies. Noblemen and noblewomen who sit calmly in their private cabins or penthouses in Manhattan or studio in Paris staring out the window for inspiration, which always comes of course, like a falling feather beautifully dancing before their eyes to just reach out and grab and to have lain gently and easily on the paper. There is no struggle. There is no pain. They avoid the 9-5 and laugh at the world. Given, the latter may be true, but the rest is a fairy tale.
Now, maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve tried doing everything but being a writer - soldier, parachutist, teacher, technician, bartender, manager - and I couldn’t do it. It just didn’t work. So here I am writing to you, having finally admitted defeat and accepted my role in life.
After finishing my first novel, ‘Sin and Zen’, it was like releasing ‘some demon which one can neither resist nor understand.’ Now that it is done, I feel lighter, freer, and able to be human again. Yet, I know it will only be a matter of time before I will be driven to madness to create something else.
There is reason to be a writer beyond being possessed of course. We get to share our idiosyncratic world, and if people read it, we feel important. We feel validated. We feel real. Yet, is this not the demon as well? The baby crying for attention?
At our best, our work does become art. It can even touch people in a very true and deep way. And yes, we do get to control our lives a little more than the average wage-slaves.
And yes, we do stare out the window a lot.
It Isn’t Rocket Science
There are a lot of types of writing. Journalism and academic papers may be like working in the factory. You just write the facts. I can’t say much to that. It is no doubt a challenge in its own way, but writing a novel is difficult in a way that is inconceivable until feeling it firsthand. It’s on the other end of the spectrum from the proverbial rocket science in the type of adversity, but on the same plane.
It is trying to master a skill and set of knowledge:
Point of view
Yet, perhaps more than rocket scientists, you will always fail.
Anybody that has written a novel will most likely agree on the same truth that our work of art is never completed. It is never the way we wanted it to be. We just eventually abandon it. We leave it behind to work on something else. Maybe, it got published. Perhaps, it stays in a drawer or a digital folder indefinitely. We never create what we dreamed it would be in our initial inspiration.
Therefore, even our seeming success still stinks of failure in some way. No matter what we write, we have thousands of years of greater works overshadowing us. Greatness from the past mocking our present.
Even being strong enough to not feel insignificant from the intimidating greatness of the past, we will feel we should have been shortlisted in a story contest or should have won something we were shortlisted on.
The entire world is literate now. Everybody thinks they have something to say. Anybody can publish. Everybody is our rival.
‘Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.’
– Orson Scott Card
We writers are capable of supporting each other, but it would be a lie to say we don’t see everyone as competition. We just don’t nourish each other that much unless it is through successful works that we feel envious of.
It is a lonely and insecure line of work. Financially insecure for sure, but there is also no guarantee that once you have written one book that could be considered good, maybe even great, you would be able to write another or be read.
And since most of us are quite anti-social, we lose touch with those few we get close to and lose lots of relationships. The rest of the world just doesn’t exist for us. Not to mention, if you are successful at all, you can easily become more arrogant than you already were. And if you are not, as is most often the case, you become depressed.
The Philosophy of this Contemporary Aspiration
It would have been impossible 200 years ago, and especially 2,000 years ago for so many people to have such a desire and ambition to become a writer.
In a certain way, it is an accomplishment for the human race. We are, as a whole, much more literate than before. We understand the power of books and their ability to change lives now.
Yet, there is perhaps a deeper and more disturbing reason why we all want to tell a story… our story, even if it is fiction. The world is more populated, but we are more isolated and lonely. We love literature, but the fact that there are so many writing coaches and publishers out there now is also revealing our overlooked private and painful feeling of silence.
We write because nobody will listen.
We begin the long and dreadful journey of setting our memories and emotions into written word because:
Our friends can’t really be bothered to hear all our problems.
Our lovers are too busy.
Our family doesn’t really know us anymore.
Quite simply, there isn’t anybody around long enough to dedicate enough uninterrupted amount of time to give us the respect and attention we need. We may start writing to share experiences or just some fantasy we have, but deep down, it is because we are desperate and ashamed and just don’t have anybody to share with.
We have cried or screamed in our own way for help, but nobody came. That is when the novel begins. That is when we discover the true purpose of writing.
It is the solution to the problem.
To be listened to
To be believed in
To be admired
To be understood
To be relieved
To be beloved
To be recognized
To be known
Socrates saw this. He wasn’t a fan of writing because he thought it made us more forgetful. Words are only symbols. True knowledge didn’t come from learning other’s words, but by experience. Much like you can see a photo of the Grand Canyon, but you can only truly know it by seeing it yourself.
More than that, he believed people should speak together, preferably over wine or on a pleasant walk rather than to write our thoughts. He witnessed the birth of literature as a sickness from social isolation.
It is not a bad thing to enjoy literature, reading it or writing it. I believe it is one of the greatest creations of mankind just behind the BLT. Yet, we shouldn’t fail to see the underlying, and possibly primary, reason we write or desire to write.
It is a very civilized and clever act of vengeance on a world that didn’t listen to us.
We would not be so ambitious to write a book if we hadn’t been so disappointed and let down by those we needed to rely on.
Of course, the idea of making money off of writing or just a deep love of words may help us finish what we started or continue being a writer. However, being more aware and allowing ourselves a bit more mutual sensitivity and compassion may provide us a stronger sense of happiness than writing alone in the middle of the night.
It isn’t easy to write a decent novel. Yet, it is probably more difficult and rewarding to have someone or a circle of people that you can truly count on. Literature will always be around and it has offered the world much, for both readers and writers.
Yet, in a better world, we may find that there is less desire to be a writer. That the literary world’s loss of applicants is, in fact, a win for humanity. That we might collectively learn to listen a little better and make ourselves heard in a less vengeful way.
Being a writer today may be something of a modern-day rockstar for some. I can get that. And I am happy to think that I may be leaving something behind in this world. It touches me to know that my words may help people I will never meet.
I believe being an author is still a noble profession and there is nothing I would rather do. I know that now. Even if it means eating beans and tortillas for months. Even if it means sleeping in my truck or living in a national park.
Yet, I couldn’t wish the curse of being a writer on anybody. A taxi driver with good friends and a loving family would be a better life if there is a choice. Though being a writer isn’t a choice, and if you still want to be one after reading this, then godspeed, brother.
So You Want to Be a Writer?
Charles Bukowski - 1920-1994
if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don't do it.
if you're doing it for money or
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don't do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don't do it.
if it's hard work just thinking about doing it,
don't do it.
if you're trying to write like somebody
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.
if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you're not ready.
don't be like so many writers,
don't be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don't be dull and boring and
pretentious, don't be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don't add to that.
don't do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don't do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don't do it.
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.