My mother bought tickets to a book luncheon the other day. I’d never heard of that, but it’s a place where a lot of women wearing Chico’s mix-and-match outfits spend $60 to eat chicken while listening to an author speak about his or her books. The author in this case was a very nice man who had published twenty books. He told charming stories about writing, including one where he said that when he had a full-time job, he would write from 5 to 7 a.m. and then hop on a train to Manhattan. Hearing him, I felt ashamed. Why wasn’t I getting up two hours early to write? (Confession: on a very good day, I get in 30 minutes. Most of that is journal writing, so I only occasionally attempt fiction.) Then he told a story about writing a short story for a magazine by first reading six months of back issues of the magazine to determine that editorial board’s particular formula. And I thought, “Why haven’t I done that?” And he also talked about getting 250 rejection letters. And I thought, “Why don’t I get more rejection letters?” Finally, I had to stop comparing myself to him because my jimmy leg was making the water glasses tremble and the ladies were eyeing me over their reading glasses.
Failure is one of the main constants in a writing life. You fail when you get a rejection letter. You fail when you only finish two days of National Novel Writing Month. You fail when you aren’t able to get published in The New Yorker, or when you forget to sign up for Breadloaf or AWP, or when you neglect to renew your subscription to Poets & Writers. You can add them up in the self-torturing list you run through late at night. But really, the only way you fail is when you don’t write at all.
Unlike many well-known and well-published writers, most of us do not have the ability to take six months off from work to go write in the mountains. We did not ever land a job teaching to have our summer free. We have year-round professions, kids to raise, dogs to walk and, sometimes, we have TV shows to watch. We have to make a living, because writing fiction or poetry does not typically bring in the big dough. Most of us have jobs that consume two-thirds of our waking hours or more.
You can even fail at writing and still be a writer. There is no such thing as a real writer. You write and get published, you are a writer. You write and don’t get published, you are a writer. If you need to, hold on to the fantasy that your manuscripts will be published posthumously to great critical acclaim. Be sure to keep the best work in a waterproof envelope marked “for Scribner’s after my death.”
Now, that doesn’t mean you do not have to write at all. You should try to write. If an opportunity comes up to have a weekend to yourself or an hour, you could use that to write. Or not. It’s the pressure of the “shoulds” that can destroy your desire and enjoyment. “Should be” writing for five hours on a Sunday. Should be getting up at 5 a.m. Should be published by now. Should have done more than two days of NANO.
Stop. Writing is supposed to be something you like to do, not something you torture yourself with. You don’t have to enjoy it every second, but if it feels like an intrusion or a trial, don’t do it. But if it’s important to see your words moving across a page, write. Do your best at creating some discipline if you can. Your best effort might be five minutes a day. Or only when you’re on the subway in the morning staring at grumpy faces. But five minutes might turn into more. Or not. Five minutes a day for a lifetime is like…a lot of minutes.
Here are some other things you can do: Send out your work. Start a writing group. Sign up for an online class. Take yourself seriously for once in your goddamn life. It’s fine to fail. Most writers fail many, many, many times before they get published. The other secret few writers admit to is that you can get published and still feel like you failed. Failure is a state of mind that can continue on even after very obvious successes.
“Fail and ye shall find.” I think Shakespeare said that. Not many people know this, but along with plays, he also wrote a ton of sci-fi fiction about talking squirrels.* Did any of those stories get published? No, but I believe he loved writing them.
(*I made all that up. I am allowed. I am a writer.)