Skylights. Exposed beams. Mexican paver tile. Views of the Pacific. And is that even . . . a small fireplace? Doug gets to write in front of a fireplace? The rest of you are instantly stricken, try not to show it. When Doug goes on, says his dream is to "take a year off and Write a Novel," it sounds like he’s going to visit some wonderful spa . . . like he’ll have all the pleasure of curling up before a fire and READING a novel, except that now he’ll get the added bonus of fame.
"I’m just so sick of all the bullshit at the office!" Doug exclaims. "The politics, the dishonesty, the sheer drudgery of doing the same thing over and over again . . ."
Of course, as he’d find out — were he to put the years in — that’s exactly what being a Writer is like.
Okay? Here comes the Tough Love. Bend over.
Take everything horrible about your day job — the repugnantly selfish co-workers (your writers’ group), hostile vendors (aloof publishers, agents), kidney-squeezing boredom in the continual pointless loop, even the manning of a booth for your product at a conference in the fluorescently lit Anaheim Convention Center to which, humiliatingly, no one comes. Multiply by 10 and imagine doing that for decades, with no health insurance and less-than-minimum-wage pay. Voilà: Life of the Writer.
Put another way: If "showing up on the page" is so healing, why have so many of our greatest writers been fall-down-drunk alcoholics?
Perhaps it’s because no one’s buying their books.
And now you see the unfolding of my deeper message, my spiritual call to arms. To be blunt, here are the top three global resources getting scarcer as we approach the year 2000:
People Eager to Read the Fiction of Others
That’s right. For the first time in, I believe, written history, there are far more fiction WRITERS on Earth than fiction READERS. How did we get here? Take the self-help movement — which says we should all tell our stories, whether we’re "writers" or not. Add the plunging price of computers — which enable us to print 20 copies of said story and, via yon whining snowmobile of the Writer’s Market, plow these manuscripts onto the fragile ecosystem of the world’s nonprofit literary magazines, magazines we’ve never bought nor seen, nor do we plan to.
Indeed, the problem’s so bad, literary magazines have developed form letters they send back to would-be authors in vain attempts to get them to actually READ the publication. The Cimmaron Review: "If just one out of six people submitting stories to our magazine bought just one annual subscription, we could afford to stay in print!" Gordon Lish: "Save yourself the postage, save yourself the bother, save yourself the wasted time and the wasted hope — by first earning an APPROXIMATE notion of the manner of attitude underlying the prose and poetry constituting an issue of The Quarterly."
It’s why yon PEN/Faulkner Award–winner (boot-cut jeans, leonine hair) is hard-pressed to find 50 people who’ll pay $25 for his new hardback. However, he has no trouble finding 100 people who’ll pay $400 to learn to write . . . FICTION! Which no one will read. Except maybe the students they then take on. See? It’s a pyramid scheme!
In short, there is a serious Attention Span problem in this country, and if you must write — and I respect that — please write RESPONSIBLY. Consider the fragility of our biosphere. Let’s borrow a page from that nasty Gordon Lish. For every 20 manuscripts you send out ($5 in first-class postage there/back x 20 = $100), you should buy five literary magazines ($5 x 5 = $25). For every writing workshop you take ($400), you should buy four (literary, a.k.a.: NONSELF-HELP) books ($100). Before taking that year off and writing a novel, ask yourself, "When’s the last time I sat down and READ one?"
Be very Native American in your thinking. Take only the Self-Expression you need. Give back where you can.
On the other hand, if you’re the sort of person who, after a long day at work, would rather kick back and watch Biography, WATCH it. Enjoy it. Don’t feel guilty. By not writing:
You’re not perpetrating a legacy of silence in your family . . .
You’re not stifling your inner child . . .
You’re not being commitmentphobic . . .
You’re just YOU . . . a person who doesn’t really enjoy writing. And that’s beautiful.
Sandra Tsing Loh is the author of a novel,If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home by Now, and a collection of essays,Depth Takes a Holiday.