Essays

There Is No Handbook for Being a Writer

By posted at 6:00 am on June 28, 2016 3

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I became a writer relatively late, well into my 40s. That makes me a second-career or mid-career writer, even though by now, I rarely use the qualifiers at all. Like millions of other people in the world, I now identify myself simply as a writer. It seemed like a great act of personal delusion (or vanity) to think I could join the ranks of such an exalted club, the one full of people whose tools are only mind and pen, and it took me a while to get there.

I do not recall the exact moment, but I do remember the awkward conversations during the most self-doubting times. There was, for instance, the dinner party where my friend, the hostess, seated me beside a Pulitzer Prize-winning author as if we had something in common.  I had recently finished the first draft of a novel, and on my desktop floated the files of a dozen or so essays that were in the process of being ignored by the legions of editors who received them in their inbox. I was 49 years old.

“You’re both writers!” my well-meaning friend said, her enthusiasm no salve for the mortification I was certain awaited me when the famous author lobbed me the inevitable question.

“So what do you do?” he asked before the appetizer even arrived.

Up until that point, I had answered that question in terms of what I used to do: I worked in television news, produced for Barbara Walters, had a career in broadcast journalism and, later, Internet media. Now, I was embarrassed to utter what I was working frenziedly in hopes of becoming — to some extent, him.

“I’m a substitute French teacher,” I said. Not exactly a lie, but an obfuscation. I’d yet to figure out how to officially admit myself to a profession where, unlike medicine, hairdressing, law, nanoscience, teaching, or carpentry, there was no real barrier to entry. Anyone could declare herself a writer. Opportunity was just one click away, since the algorithms read my web searches and, it seemed, my mind. “Get published!” flashed my computer screen, as if it were as simple as booking a cheap flight to Chicago.

I may have been born with a need to write, but I had to learn to be a writer. My decades-long resistance came from something deeply connected to the idea of work. Writing had seemed self-indulgent, something for the independently wealthy, or the domain of rare, mad genius. In 1982, I graduated with a degree in Russian Studies and a fat folder of overwrought prose from my creative writing classes. My characters tended to be deranged Muscovites who shambled along the promenades of the Côte d’Azur –homage, I suppose, to Andrei Bely, Alexander Blok, and Anton Chekhov, my literary gods at the time. But after college, that was that. I never entertained the idea that people had careers as writers. Journalists, yes, those who went to work and were handed actual assignments, called it a day, and went out for beers. But men and women who scribbled all day crafting a single beautiful sentence and swilling liters of black coffee like Honoré de Balzac? Work was a place with an office, colleagues, a supply closet full of Scotch tape and Post-its. A ladder to be scaled as quickly as possible.  In such jobs, it would be easy to measure success. In such jobs, my missteps would be clear and quantifiable. In such jobs, you got paychecks and raises and had to deal with bosses and the copy machine. Plus, I could not afford not to work and did not understand that there was another way to be a writer — to work at a bookstore, as a bartender or a copy editor and ply the craft before breakfast.

So I had a career, moved laterally and upwards across Manhattan to other positions and across the ocean for several more. I jumped around a lot, went from ABC to CBS to NBC, to producing an A&E biography on the Pope, back to ABC, to two Internet media companies. A stifled artist was scratching through all of my work identities, and though my jobs were fascinating I never really had the mettle to soldier on. I turned down more opportunities than I can count, and often thought to myself, “Because now it’s time to write.” At the last minute, bank account draining, courage always eluded me, and I moved on to another producing job.

Throughout my professional years, I kept diaries, journals, reporter’s pads, and notebooks. At times, I untangled those disparate threads into orderly prose. I started 14 novels in an attempt to make sense of whatever was churning both in and around me. They were extractions from life, and I remember my consternation at the pointlessness of writing them down only for myself. The locations were uniformly exotic — Prague, Dubai, Marrakech, Damascus, Krakow — and they all contained a conflicted journalist protagonist who looked remarkably like me.

My family and I pulled up stakes from Manhattan and departed for rural New England, downsizing to a fraction of our former lives. I had no excuses left. In the face of unemployment, another birthday, panic, and with a tiny bit of savings, I leapt into the canyon. For once, I wrote with the expectation of reaching someone else. When I talk to other second-career writers, this desire to speak and be heard gathers urgency during long, restless nights, as it did for me. I met each day with the words, “If not now, when?” I had few expectations, and not a drop of legitimacy, but had begun to do the hard work in hopes of earning some.

So far, I had only been an employee, so I needed to innovate — to build my own scaffolding for a working day, rein in distraction, construct a module that both contained and gave shape to my new profession. There was the writing itself, and then there was the career part: polish my work, get published, get an agent, get noticed, get paid. I discovered a bursting kernel of ambition within myself, and a competitive streak. I had few publishing connections and was never particularly lucky, but I wanted this badly.

I wrote exhaustively. Emboldened by the craft and discipline of authors I admired, I read prodigiously, too, with purpose and urgency. I scribbled down sentences that sang to me and tacked them to my wall: Mark Helprin, Shirley Hazzard, Dawn Powell, Margaret Atwood, Monica Ali, Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Michaels, Marilynne Williamson, always Anton Chekhov. These are the writers I loved during those heavy fiction years, and their words drove my vision, sometimes straight into a brick wall. Chock it up to the futility of trying to measure up.

A lifetime of dammed-up words continued to unleash itself. I revised my stories for the hundredth time and sent them to busy editors the world over. Back then, my confidence soared in proportion to my productivity, and I overestimated what a no-fail combo that would be. I was slow to accept how much I had to learn and every day that passes, I’m making up for lost time. Early on, I joined a writer’s group, and then another. They were full of inspiring people, but I quickly phased myself out. Then friends I respect suggested an MFA in creative writing. I pushed back, stubbornly, and instead got a Masters in International Relations. I thought it might behoove me to prepare myself for when the writing failed, so I could pursue my back up plan as Ambassador to France. Quite unexpectedly, an experience at grad school provided the material for my first big magazine piece, sent cold to an editor. I went to bed bitter with frustration and woke up with a career.

I’m not 22 or even 42 and do not have the benefit of time, but I do have one advantage. I arrived here fully formed, certain of only one thing: there is no handbook for this. There is trial, error, and work, work, work. My disappointments are often followed by a glimpse of hope. The first novel found an agent but not a buyer. I was briefly destroyed. I wrote an essay about a woman I had met in the Soviet Union, sent it to an anthology, and accidentally became a travel writer. 

At first, the emotional game of skeet nauseated me, but I adapted. Vulnerability was the price of admission.  I was a mother of two teenagers and sliding into my sixth decade, but the energy I had surprised even me. Early on, I looked around at publishing success and felt uneasy.  There were moments I believed there were actually more writers than readers. Who the hell did I think I was, pecking away in the woods? Every time I read about a middle-aged first-time writer, I needed to know his or her story. Was there luck, powerful connections, or just raw genius? I’ve relaxed greatly on this front. We can all take out the yardstick and measure other writers’ successes, especially now that social media seems custom-made for crowing. I have tried to stand tall through many failures and to stay humble when I am published. One person’s day of game-changing news could be another’s morning of crushing disappointment. If we’re honest, envy is often baked into the writer’s cake, especially one waiting for a big break.  It is also, rationally, a complete waste of time. 

It helps to realize that each single victory is just that: one check in the plus column. Every day I whipsaw between euphoria and despair and I’ve gotten used to this as an occupational hazard of my job. After 20 years in television, highs and lows are nothing new. A dropped satellite feed from Moscow during the evening broadcast served to instill in me some coping skills. Now, even if I’m awash in anxious tears in the morning, I know I’ll be fine by my third cup of coffee.

Money is not the only determinant of writing achievement these days, though it certainly would be nice to make some. Has someone read, responded, reached out? If yes, then I’ve succeeded. If no, I gather up my satchel and walk on. I’ve watched many of my projects stall, crater, or simply go nowhere. Another proposal that gained no traction, countless rejected stories.  And then, a book of essays on France I never imagined I’d write was, briefly, a bestseller. On it goes along that thrilling continuum of inspiration, exhaustion, and elation.

I have no method, really, but I’m working on one. Given the writing advice that streams on my feeds several times a day, I’m inspired by how open we are to upping our game. Still, I’ve found that no pithy maxim about the writer’s life can give me courage on the many days mine flags. Sometimes the best I can do is collect snippets like I did on the road as a journalist and scribble them on note pads or just toss them in a pool of ideas, and wait for the bold lines of a shape to take hold. I flip around questions that are to me endlessly invigorating — big ones about love, choices, family, and passing time. In middle age, looking back is a reflex and creatively a gold mine. I never stop writing even if I haven’t written a word for a month.   

Although writers are solitary, writing is not an activity that should happen in total isolation. Television was an entirely collaborative medium consisting of journalists, researchers, cameramen, editors, correspondents.  I miss the days when my colleagues and I ordered cheeseburgers from the joint downstairs. Engagement is invigorating, and the act of listening soothes my loneliness. I don’t do either nearly enough, and some days I strive to belong not just to the family of writers but to a community of them as well. I could stand to be a more generous and more vulnerable colleague.  I’m considering another writer’s group.

I do have some credos. One of them comes from my husband: You’ve only failed when you’ve stopped trying. The next one comes from my father: Work as hard as you can, and then work harder. The last one is mine, and the most obvious: I am writing because I want to. I no longer believe that the job of writer has the whiff of exaltation, as I once did. I believe we should give that honor to triage nurses, firefighters, and anyone who teaches children. But it does take courage to lay it all down; it requires some kind of raw, foolish power to believe in the inevitability of your thoughts and the words they form.

Many second-career writers have it much worse than I do, and I assume many are much better off.  But we all arrived here — if the endless peaks and valleys can even be called a destination — against the noise of a ticking clock. I’d like to say that maturity brought me resolve at last, but I think it was desperation. I try to remember that time is on my side because I can no longer waste it. I’m in my 50s, and there is a lot of life still to be sorted out. I have aging parents, children, a marriage, and friends. Immense cares that eat up vast swaths of my days and, soon, an empty nest. I compete against the minutes and hours, and at midlife, they begin to pass with unnerving speed. No sense wallowing; there’s work to be done.

Image Credit: Flickr/David Turnbull; Pixabay.





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3 Responses to “There Is No Handbook for Being a Writer”

  1. Aru
    at 5:24 am on June 29, 2016

    this is splendid, esp in the internet days of “10 secret ways to be a better writer”
    I am a fan of Chekhov short stories too.

  2. kyle
    at 1:35 pm on June 30, 2016

    Thank you. On my bad day of bad writing, you made me feel better. Thank you.

  3. Catherine Burns
    at 3:24 pm on July 3, 2016

    Hello Marcia,
    Thank you very much for your piece about being a writer. Your piece touched my very soul. I too am a second career writer becoming fifty in September. Just to be safe in case I blow it as a writer I’m finishing my bachelor’s in English. I also feel rushed to establish myself but in the end I feel as long as I write for myself everything will fall into place. Silly I know.
    Mostly I want to thank you for writing honestly and taking a risk. I will remember your words through my own struggle.
    Thanks

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