On (attempted) writing

The worst thing about being an aspiring writer (i.e., a writer who is not paid) is informing your friends and family of this station in life.

When you graduate from college (especially if you have attained a degree in a “Soft Science” or “Liberal Art” or “Very Expensive Discipline With Low Remunerative Potential”) then you are inevitably asked, “So, what are you going to do now?”

You smile, you dig your toe into the ground. There’s no escaping it. “Well, ma’am, I’m going to be a writer.”

I have found this declaration to be met with a curious response. Usually, it is the sort of reply you might expect, had you just informed the interested party that it is your life’s ambition to acquire a rare and incurable disease. “Oh, you’ve never heard of mega-scabies? Trust me, you will.”

In my family, especially my mother’s side of the family, this declaration of intent is almost universally met with a curt smile that in any other situation would signify an unwelcome tightening of the sphincter. Confusion, mild revulsion. “Well that’s interesting, Shane. Have you considered teaching?”

I smile. I nod. “Yes. It certainly is interesting.”

At parties it’s worse. Fortunately, I happen to live at a time and in a place in which no one my age has anything resembling a career, so declaring your intention to be a writer sounds not quite as crazy as it might at, say, a meeting of the Stanford business fraternity. You can holler all you want about being a “writer” in Portland. When it comes down to brass tacks you’re every bit as unemployed as the “graphic designers,” “actors,” and “guitarists” with whom you’re sharing the room.

However, despite this buffer, announcing your intention to write is often greeted with the strained smiles of those who are knowingly witnessing a real, live failure. They nod, possessed by an unexplainable glee. “I may have relegated myself to the soul-sucking belly of a cubicle, but at least I have a paycheck. At least I have health insurance. At least I can put gas in my moderately sized, Japanese automobile.”

The screenwriter William Goldman used to tell an anecdote about how he announced at a New York party that he was a writer and how the young woman with whom he was talking simply turned on her heel and start looking the other way.

These are tough times for the almost, but not-quite-yet careered. Defeat, and its persistent minions, make the world seem a bleak place. You want to grab the offending parties, to shake them and say, “Look! Look you depressing, philistine bastard, I’ve seen beauty! I know it exists! Look at this talent I have, and this determination, and, no, I’m not especially optimistic, but I’m working very hard on seeing the positive side of things, and I think I’m making good progress. Besides, lots of people make a living writing. There are so many opportunities, so many venues, and I’m sure, with just a little hard work and a decent helping of luck, I’ll be living my dream in no time. Just you wait. Check back with me next year and I’ll be on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, the credits of a Christopher Nolan film, the bankroll of the Atlantic Monthly.

“Or maybe, if you’re interested, you could just sleep with me? It won’t necessarily help the writing, but it will probably boost both of our egos, and I’ve been told that I’m ‘not bad’ in bed. Or, okay, scratch that if you like. But help me out here. Just, please, acknowledge that I’m trying to do something worth doing and that it’s hard enough without the contagious pessimism of a defeated people.”

Curt smile. Tightened sphincter.

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