Ever since I learned to read, I’ve wanted to be a writer. For years, I’d daydream and talk about writing, but it was fantasy. It took a dash of midlife angst to make me, the Writer, a reality. In the last two years, I started writing for this blog and finished the first draft of a novel. It feels like I’m getting close to something. Or at the very least, I’m in the process of becoming something.
I used to imagine myself as a writer, hunched over a little wooden desk, pen gripped tightly in hand, sweating out each and every word. The floor would be littered with crumpled up paper. Perhaps I’d even be a little self-destructive and there would be an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts or a bottle of Glenlivet whiskey stashed in my bottom desk drawer. My mental picture was always an odd combination of the tortured artist and the hard-boiled detective.
In my writing fantasy, there was no husband, no child, no laundry, no lunches to be made, no other job that I was beholden to and no sense of obligation to anything but my art. I’d be writing from a taverna in Greece in between lovers (Efharistó Shirley Valentine) or up in a mountain camp, writing by firelight, while howling wolves served as white noise (someone read too much Hemingway). There would be no interruptions, no emergency phone calls to the dentist or plumber. There would be no stopping to answer work emails or texts from play date moms.
And the suffering…oh, there would be much of that. Tragic love affairs that would leave me no appetite, but plenty of material about which to write. Loneliness that would leave me looking haunted while madly productive. I’d be miserably poor, wearing shoes with holes in them and having to depend on the kindness of strangers (Will write for food). My art would be real because I suffered. No one told me I’d be a well fed, financially stable, relatively happy person with a loving family. How can I write with no hunger, no grief, no unending solitude?
My alma mater, the University of Iowa, is home to the nationally known Iowa Writer’s Workshop. While I was getting a degree in Russian Studies, it was like dating someone when I had a yen for one of his friends. I would read over the requirements for getting into the workshop repeatedly and longingly. Kurt Vonnegut once taught there. Many of my favorite writers were alumni – Flannery O’Connor, Wallace Stegner, Jane Smiley, Robert Penn Warren. I daydreamed about that program while suffering through courses on Russian Morphology and Semantics. Perhaps I lacked the commitment to be a writer.
And then there’s the smorgasbord of writing workshops, classes and online courses that I halfheartedly rambled through. I’ve found reason after reason to not like these venues, whether it be the deep/indecipherable work of others or my thin-skinned thoughts/obscenities upon getting critiqued. Or getting a signed copy of the teacher’s work, only to discover that what they had in teaching affability, they lacked in basic editing skills. I’m a spelling snob and rank amateur with a fragile ego. Maybe I don’t have the durability or collaborative skills to be a writer.
All of the above goes to say that these ideas of a writer’s life can be more discouraging than the actual work of writing. When I think about all the things other writers say they do – the groups and workshops and degrees, I feel like I might be missing the point. The dogma that bleeds through writing advice articles intimidates me. I would never refer to my art except in a mocking, falsely pompous voice.
This mythical creature, the writer as artist, has disappeared, only to be replaced by a multi-tasker writing frantic paragraphs between trips to the grocery store and school and appointments. I write when I can. And lately, I write because I can’t imagine not writing. It’s an emotional realization for me. Is this what being a writer means?
When I read a book that thrills me, I flip to the author bio. Part of me wishes I’d read “Jane Writer hasn’t done jack with her life up to this point and still managed to get published. She now lives in a little ranch house in the suburbs with her loving, but argumentative husband, messy child and ill-behaved cats. She has no writing degrees or work experience as a writer and she’s not planning on getting any.”
This idea of being a writer is surrounded by urban legend, misconceptions, romantic representation – a mythology that has, until recently, eluded me. Writing isn’t a cult of personality or accumulation of degrees. It’s like singing off-key in the shower – the true joy is private and in the doing. When I write, even if I’m struggling, I’m in a sacred, satisfying space. It’s the only place I’ve spotted that magical, elusive creature known as the Writer.