In her short story, "How to Become a Writer," Lorrie Moore states: "First, try to be something, anything, else." For ten years I've been "seriously" writing fiction. I've won a few contests and have been published in several literary magazines. My fiction has earned me close to five-thousand dollars since January. I even have an agent with a New York City zip code. And, sometimes, writers actually pay me to read and critique their stories. Basically, at thirty-four, I now have the street cred I longed for a decade ago. You'd figure this very moderate level of success would inspire confidence, yet I continue to suffer the same fear, doubt, and insecurity which plagued me as an unpublished writer.
No question makes me panic more than what do you do? I absolutely die inside. I'd rather address my irrational fear of being followed (I always run up stairwells for this reason) than announce to a stranger that I'm a writer. The shame I endure should be reserved for ticket scalpers and animal abusers, yet I feel like a sleaze when I confess to being a writer. Remember that five-thousand dollars earned income I mentioned above? Well I've spent that and more on contest fees, workshops, and postage over the past decade.
The bottom line is I choose to write. My friend, Ben, is an engineer. He once drunkenly told me how embarrassed he was to tell women what he did for a living, how dorky he felt handing over his business card. "Are you kidding me?" I shouted. If I were an engineer I wouldn't shut up about how smart I am, how useful I am to the modern world. At least he could say what he did in one word and move on. For me it's a goddamn exposition, a thick, hearty trail of BS.
I know people who love writing, who work at it every day without fail. For me, writing is a love-hate relationship, always grueling; I downright resent the process. But, again, since I choose to write I really have no justification for complaint. The soldier in Iraq doesn't want to hear about my feelings of inadequacy. The little bald girl with cancer doesn't need to hear about my being misunderstood. So whenever I wallow in self-pity (hourly), I try and return to Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet:
"There is only one way…Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write…Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple. ‘I must,' then build your life upon it…Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge."
To answer Rilke's question, I do in fact feel I must write. Sure, the world will continue to spin if I don't, but inside I'd crumble. And I know this only because time and again I've looked for ways out, loopholes. New jobs eventually bore me, exotic locales get stale, vices turn their back on me. Ironically, all these attempts to rid fiction from my life have only made me a better practitioner. The struggle, unfortunately, is an inherent part of the process. Not one writer, even the ones whose work I despise, have it easy. I need to remember this.
I don't suppose I'll be comfortable introducing myself as a writer until I have a New York Times Bestseller, until I'm on Oprah, until my work is adapted for the big screen. Only then might I express myself to others with aplomb. In the meantime I'll keep writing because I still don't know what else to do.