Why writers are crazy masochists

On Sunday, I was scrolling through Facebook (never a good thing), and thinking about how most people spend their time on weekends. For most people, those days off are dedicated to fun, letting loose, getting out and about (or, that’s what Facebook implies). For me, weekends are a little angst-ridden. I struggle with how much to work on my writing (because weekends are the only time I have for that) and how much to enjoy life (because YOLO and FOMO and all those other acronyms that annoy the hell out of me).

This helped me realize something: WRITERS ARE NUTS. Most people seem to see happiness as the primary objective of life. I seem to value struggle. My mom says this is related to my Puritan ancestors. Perhaps my value of struggle is why I became a writer; or perhaps being a writer made me develop this value (because, honestly, if you don’t value struggle, you can’t be a writer. It’s like someone wanting to be a jockey without a horse).

I’m not saying that writers aren’t happy. I’m a generally content person. But so much of a writer’s life can be fraught. Here’s what I mean.

1. The act of writing itself is difficult. In an interview with Vice, author Joy Williams said, straight up, “Writing gives me no happiness.” I can’t say I agree with that, wholeheartedly, but I know what she means. There are days when everything is flowing and the story is surprisingly thrilling. That makes me happy. But, most days aren’t like that. I relate it to running. I have some runs that feel like I’m jumping on clouds, but most feel like I’m slogging through mud wearing weighted boots. Come to think of it, you must also value struggle to be a runner.

2. You always feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. There is so much self-doubt through the solitary process. You keep going because of the rare moments of, “Wow, maybe I have something here.” Anne Lamott says it best in Bird by Bird when she writes about the radio station KFKD (“K-Fucked”) and how it plays “the endless stream of self-aggrandizement” in one ear, and “rap songs of self-loathing” in the other.

3. But you must write. I don’t write for joy, though sometimes (on the magical days), joy is a result of writing. Mostly, writing is a need. Sometimes, it’s an obligation, the way an itch needing to be scratched is an obligation. I write because I have to. If I don’t, my brain feels like it will explode.

4. Unless you can write full-time, you will constantly feel like your brain is about to explode. Most writers are strapped for time, because they have regular jobs and commitments and responsibilities. I have so many ideas in my head and there is this constant, chronic unease because I’m physically unable to sit and bring those ideas to life. I’m always lamenting the lack of time. My brain never feels quite peaceful.

5. You have to sacrifice lots of “fun” things. Most weekends, I try to leave the majority of at least one day completely open so I can write. Preferably, both days are open. This means I miss out on fun things sometimes. But, what are you gonna do? If I don’t make the sacrifice and dedicate the time, bad things happen (ie, brain explosion).

6. The luxury of writing full-time is very rare. It just is. Elizabeth Gilbert says she didn’t quit her other jobs until Eat, Pray, Love took off. She’d written other books before that, but they couldn’t pay the bills. This is the reality for most authors.

7. Writing does not pay much. We all hear about huge advances, but the majority of writers are not making a real living off writing. Well-meaning people ask when I’m going to quit my day job and I laugh. I tell them, “Oh, I’m taking a loss on this book” and they think I’m joking. I tell them I’m serious and they looked confused. Most advances aren’t huge, and paying for things like your website and publicity and all of that is expensive. Hannah Gersen, in an interview with The Millions, says, “The culture’s really focused on making money…For me, I’m barely breaking even.” Yep, that’s how it goes.

8. You are part of a supposedly-dying industry. Everyone says fiction readers are a dying breed. This is really depressing because I am wired to write novels. I can write other things, but novels are what I love. I’ll always write them, but I suppose I may not have many readers at some point. There should be a support group for novelists, blacksmiths, and the creators of Nintendo games.

9. You are a sensitive soul in a really insensitive business. Publishing is tough business. There is so much rejection–form letters with zero emotion from uninterested agents, emails from publishers who “unfortunately need to pass” (for various obscure reasons), and snarky reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Writers are very private people and it can often feel like too much (for me, at least).

10. You can’t quit the business. Trust me, I’ve thought about it. But, I will always write (see #3) and, as I do, I will feel that pull to publish for the sole purpose of sharing stories with others. It’s my introverted way of connecting.

So, like I said, writers are nuts. I always come back to this Dorothy Parker quote:

dorothy parker quote

In all seriousness, though, I continue writing because it would cause me more angst to stop. If you love writing, do it. But do it for the joy of the process, not for any outcome. How’s that for today’s Buddhism lesson?

2 thoughts on “Why writers are crazy masochists

  1. I think with writing, it starts out as a passion that wanes over time, especially with feelings of stagnation, but people are unwilling or unable to let it go.

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