Essays

The Writer Career Arc, or Why We Love the Susan Boyle Story

By posted at 6:38 am on February 11, 2010 14

covercoverIt has come to my attention that a favorite interview question for authors, especially debut authors, is what you did before you were a published. There is the vague compulsion when answering that the more outlandish, the better. The idea is that the reader, and aspiring authors out there, are interested in a Susan Boyle-like rags-to-riches story. Cab driver to Best Seller? Yes! Grocery clerk to Nobel Prize winner? Cool! As if literary success — and that’s a flexible definition that would require its own essay — were akin to winning the lottery, or better yet, being struck by lightning. These lists give one the impression that deciding to write came more as a whim, that one day while cutting someone’s hair, the idea for scribbling down Anna Karenina occurred. Or while working as a short-order cook, one decided on the plot of Babette’s Feast. What is behind the fascination of such lists and what are the realities?

Which brings me to Susan Boyle. My husband dragged me to the computer to watch a YouTube video of her singing, which I frankly didn’t want to watch, and yet, I, along with 60 million other people quickly felt my heart in my throat. Why? Because, to quote the movie Jerry Maguire, we live in a cynical world, because most of us are like the snickering girl in the audience — one look at Susan, and we know lightning isn’t going to strike there. And yet, deep down, we all want the playing field to be level, for the underdog — those not well connected, pedigreed, likely — to succeed. We root for Rocky Balboa, the self-published grandmother, and the short-order cook to pen a masterpiece. These profiles feed into that fantasy as much as those commercials that promise you thin thighs in two weeks. So what happens when the writer achieves that holy grail of a published book?

What the profiles fail to reveal is that the literary apprenticeship is a lengthy one for the majority, that getting published at all is difficult, and to get paid enough to not do anything else but write is virtually a dream. The supposed average money earned by a novelist is $10,000, but if that novel takes two years to write, then cut that in half, $5,000. As one online article trenchantly stated: “Most novelists and story writers would make more money if they worked full-time at McDonald’s.” Ouch! Susan Boyle got beat by a silly dance troupe, but went on to make a bestselling CD sold round the globe. Those of us with a new book coming out? Not so much.

In fact, those jobs that are so intriguing are precisely the reason books aren’t getting written. During my own apprenticeship, I wrote in the park while working on remodeling houses, wrote in the afternoon while trading stocks in the morning, worked in an art studio doing bookkeeping, writing at night, but all through that I considered myself a writer, although I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t make my living that way. When the technology market crashed, I found myself with more time on my hands to write.

Writing as a paying profession has always been an insecure proposition. Tolstoy, born into the aristocracy, flunked out of college and lived a playboy existence running up gambling debts, escaping them by running off to join the army. All of these experiences are in his books. Later he ran his estate and wrote. Tolstoy, in short, had a trust fund. Are there any nascent epics being written in the service area of McDonald’s, I wonder?

Honoré de Balzac is a writer more of us can empathize with. According to the Wikipedia entry for him, “he turned his back on law after wearying of its inhumanity and banal routine.” Hear you there, Honoré. A key fact of Balzac’s career — he wrote 100 novels and plays, all the while trying his hand at a bunch of different jobs in order to earn his living. He failed at all these money-making pursuits. His end was particularly troubling for me: According to the favored, possibly apocryphal story, while writing to the point of exhaustion in order to pay bills, he supposedly overdosed on countless cups of very strong coffee!

coverThe truth for most writers, then and now, is that the majority of those jobs both fuel our fiction and keep us from writing it. Richard Ford famously wrote two novels that didn’t sell well, and he gave up fiction for sports writing. When the magazine he was writing for folded and Sports Illustrated didn’t hire him, Ford had some time on his hands. Then came his breakthrough novel, The Sportswriter. The rest is history.

James Ellroy kept working as a caddie through six novels, and used his advance on the seventh to do his own promotion. Richard Russo, Michael Ondaatje, and many others kept teaching until they reached a level of readership through several books where it made more sense to write than teach. Of course, these are the success stories, authors whose names we recognize.

There are writers who shall remain nameless who gave up lucrative careers in law to go get an MFA, who are now languishing at community colleges teaching English composition. Still no big book contract. I know, I know, Honoré hated the law. Then there are the ones who failed to earn out, the chilly story of “Jane Austen Doe” in Salon and her tale of diminishing book advances. Others who wrote one book and never a second one, who gave up and went back to regular careers, or who went to graduate school. Is it Darwinian survival of the most talented, or has writing now more than ever become an avocation rather than a career? Does society owe you a living if you make a product no one is buying? Has fiction writing turned into a hobby?

Perhaps a writer like Jacob Appel is the future. With both law and medical degrees, as well as an MFA (as well as being licensed as a New York City sightseeing guide so he’s the quirky arc all ready), Jacob, while practicing medicine, has also managed to publish over one hundred short stories in almost every literary journal out there, as well as win many short story prizes. And he writes plays.

Jacob said that a windfall in writing might cause him to curtail his hours practicing medicine, but he would never quit it. “… if one spends enough time away from the world where people have to go to work every morning, one risks losing touch with the life one wants to capture on the page. Waking up at noon and writing in one’s pajamas may have worked for Samuel Johnson, but it’s a dangerous recipe for most of us.” In the interests of full disclosure, I will report that I emailed Jacob at four in the morning, and he answered within five minutes. I don’t think the guy sleeps. And I’m typing this right now at noon. In my pajamas.

The majority of writers I know have a complicated mosaic of various jobs, juggling writing, teaching, freelancing, family. It is difficult, and it is a necessity, and most of us who keep doing it can’t imagine doing anything else. When I asked Jacob about the even greater financial difficulty of being a short story writer, he said: “The people who love short fiction, I believe, are writing already, even without financial incentives.” I believe the same can be said for most novelists out there. Will some of the magic leave the author profile when it goes something like this:

student, short-order cook at McDonald’s, lawyer, novelist, teacher, short-order cook at McDonald’s

I am very grateful to have a novel coming out this year. I still work part-time with my husband, take on freelance projects when I can get them, still teach part-time. I have hopes that I might be lucky enough to sell my second novel. I will keep the want-ads close.

Bonus Link: Working the Double Shift





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14 Responses to “The Writer Career Arc, or Why We Love the Susan Boyle Story”

  1. Ben
    at 9:40 am on February 11, 2010

    Nice, thoughtful article. It made me wonder: Is JK Rowling, even more than Susan Boyle, the best recent example of the rags-to-riches myth (especially as it applies to literature)?

  2. Andrew
    at 12:41 pm on February 11, 2010

    “Are there any nascent epics being written in the service area of McDonald’s, I wonder?”
    Considering that I’m a vegetarian I don’t frequent too many McDonald’s, or similar burger franchise establishments. However, the few times that I do wander into one I am hard pressed to find a bright bulb in the bunch. But, I suppose you never know.

    Aren’t a great deal of writers earning their MFA and then landing teaching jobs? It seems that not only do most published authors complete an MFA but they also teach in either an MFA program or undergrad. Junot Diaz, George Saunders and Tobias Wolff come to mind.

  3. Mookie
    at 2:28 pm on February 11, 2010

    This is a VERY interesting article.

    One thing that Rowling and Boyle have in common is time ‘on the dole’. In the US’s welfare to work system, would either have had time to hone their craft? Rowling wrote in a coffee shop. Boyle practiced her scales every day. Would she have had the energy to do so after a day waiting tables? Hard to say. Katharine Hepburn always said she was lucky she didn’t have to work a job while studying acting. Good on her for admitting it.

    But Boyle isn’t Rocky Balboa – she’s Roy Hobbes from The Natural. After years of practice she finally got her time at bat and didn’t square for a bunt but, rather, swung for the seats.

    I like this site!

  4. Tatjana
    at 6:38 pm on February 12, 2010

    Andrew, you are absolutely right that a majority of successful writers also teach, but with the huge number of newly minted MFA’s each year, the degree alone is usually not enough to land one of these coveted spots. You also need to have a pretty spectacular publishing history.

  5. Samuel Snoek-Brown
    at 11:55 pm on February 13, 2010

    You offer a lot to think about here, and I love it. At first your comments on quirky careers as a precursor to publishing reminded me of Elmore Leonard, who reportedly wrote his first five novels with his hand hidden in his desk drawer at his ad copy job then typed them up at night; or Tom Franklin, who worked in grit refineries and chemical plants and morgues before he dove into his MFA program at U of Arkansas and wrote what became his excellent story collection, Poachers, which includes stories about guys who work in grit refineries and chemical plants and morgues. Which got me thinking about Chuck Palahniuk, whose cult fame is based as much on his personal history and bizarre experiences as on his fiction, or Hemingway, who seems almost to have gone to war or on safari simply to write interesting fiction. I love how our careers wind up informing our fiction so intimately, and these days–in contemporary Western literature, anyway–we need to live interesting lives as much as we need to write. I think those days of aristocratic leisure writing or romanticized starving artistry are gone (Rowling’s example notwithstanding). The new paradigm is not the starving artist but the struggling artist, the secret artist, the artist who hides in a day job until magic happens. I think the real “underdog” story behind people like Rowling or Boyle or Stephenie Meyer is the dream that some day, if we’re patient enough and suffer enough in our day jobs, somebody will recognize our innate genius and we’ll never have to sweat again. It’s a dangerous sort of dream because it denies what you aptly call the apprenticeship in writing, the reality that writing is work and hard work at that, but this is where we are, I think. Where that leads us, I’m not sure, but I’m glad your article raised all those questions for me. Thanks for writing.

  6. Writing as work; or, a new literary daydream « Samuel Snoek-Brown
    at 12:08 am on February 14, 2010

    […] the link over to The Millions, where I found Tatjana Soli’s fascinating essay, “The Writer Career Arc, or Why We Love the Susan Boyle Story.”  Go check it out for yourself, and feel free to offer comments there and/or here, because […]

  7. Douglas Matus
    at 12:08 pm on February 14, 2010

    I love this line:
    I will report that I emailed Jacob at four in the morning, and he answered within five minutes. I don’t think the guy sleeps. And I’m typing this right now at noon. In my pajamas.

    I quit a fairly lucrative career to pursue an MFA. I’m in my second semester of the program, and regret has so far not crossed my mind. My job was one of those that you love in theory, but years and years of being worn down, working 60 hour weeks, not having any time to write; it reached a breaking point. The reality is that, yes, writing is a fool’s profession: you work and you don’t get paid. But for people who feel called to it, there’s really no choice to make.

  8. Nigel
    at 2:06 pm on February 14, 2010

    RE. “Jacob said that a windfall in writing might cause him to curtail his hours practicing medicine, but he would never quit it. “… if one spends enough time away from the world where people have to go to work every morning, one risks losing touch with the life one wants to capture on the page'”. I do reckon there’s something in this – if writers lock themselves away from the world can they really make the necessary observations and interpretations their fiction requires? I’m a short-story writer and novelist but I also have an almost full-time job (in arts development; not so quirky as many others!). I like how these two parts of my life inform each other – it’s wonderful to be inspired by the full range of art forms – but for me the issue is one of tiredness and exhaustion. Writing anything is hard work, but fiction is particularly challenging, and writing a novel is a life-sucking (and sometimes, just sometimes life-giving) marathon. Is it really possible to write great fiction when there are so many demands on our time? I guess, history tells us that the answer is yes.

  9. - News
    at 4:00 am on February 18, 2010

    […] Writers are poor because they are paid peanuts. File this one under “NO SHIT SHERLOCK!” (The Millions) […]

  10. Nick Meador
    at 11:24 am on February 19, 2010

    Your article takes for granted that the system is set up the correct way, that creative souls of any kind should have to fight for a chance to be “prostitute of the week” for some mega-corporation: a publisher, major record label, etc. At the core of the essay, you also pose two very contradictory questions:

    “Is it Darwinian survival of the most talented, or has writing now more than ever become an avocation rather than a career? Does society owe you a living if you make a product no one is buying? Has fiction writing turned into a hobby?”

    The first relates to my previous point, because viewing writing as a career undermines the very purpose of the craft (i.e. self-expression, transcendence via creativity, contributing to the evolution of mankind). On the other hand, I’d argue that society DOES owe more to those who devote themselves to creative pursuits — even if only temporarily (as in a sabbatical).

    Countries offering such benefits (e.g. Sweden, or even Canada) are doing better overall, and I think there’s a direct connection between the two. Content publishers are warlords of the Capitalist machine.

  11. Gwen H
    at 2:23 am on February 20, 2010

    How do writing-related jobs factor into this juggling act? If one lands a relatively enjoyable job as an editor, does the blending of work and pleasure make it harder to write at night? Is it almost better to have a job completely unconnected to the literary world, so you don’t use up all your creative energy?

  12. christine
    at 7:37 am on February 22, 2010

    You clearly frame the plight of the artist. Artists create because they must! It is not easy to be a writer published or unpublished! Those that close themselves off to write or create, or perhaps out of fear of rejection, may lose the connectedness of their work to the world. Critique is not easy to take sometimes, but sometimes the self-critic is the hardest. Susan Boyle could have kept her talents at home and been like the writer who never attempts to publish. The doctor/ lawyer could have said I am too busy to write. But as writers, and artists of all kind can note they are most fulfilled when their art becomes a touchstone for connectedness a reflection of the human condition. Thanks for writing this thought provoking piece!

  13. Kelley
    at 3:00 pm on February 24, 2010

    This reminds me of the fact that people tend to write stories about average people; even if a character is an artist, they’re usually a mediocre one. It’s as if people don’t want to read about anyone who seems to be above them in some way, and if given the choice, they prefer to read the work of authors who seem like peers. Maybe we don’t want to believe that professional writers live and experience things like we do, regardless of whether that’s fair or not.

  14. Mary Beth Lasswell
    at 4:12 pm on September 1, 2011

    I’m a dreamer, a retired social worker, and when my husband nicely asked me to “stop doing social work at home”, I knew it was time to find ‘clients’ that I could analyze, and build personalities around. History books are full of interesting characters, (no, I don’t find Jack the Ripper fascinating at all) which sets me to wondering “why did they behave as they did”. When no answer is readily available, I begin creating a personality that matches the “known and unknown” qualities of the character, and fill in the blank spaces, sort of an “unauthorized psychological evaluation”.

    One of my favorite characters, Bonnie Prince Charlie is a real study in adult behaviors reflecting a spoiled, deprived childhood. The outcome is the massacre at Culloden’s Moor. Interesting how it all intertwines together.

    My first novel is waiting…….(can’t sing, so I might as well write)

    Beth

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