The Writer’s Sacrifices?
Across the table sits a youngish woman of maybe 30. She’s earnest, excited, and surprised I agreed to meet her for lunch. I ran into her husband, a random encounter in a store I frequent, and he offered to help me with a problem. After realizing he didn’t work there, I still listened to what he had to say because the way he asked the question was specific enough to suggest he might have some knowledge. Turned out, he did. In fact, he probably had better knowledge than the store clerks. We got to talking. “Oh, you’re a writer! My wife just finished her first novel.”
He’s a young man. I was sure his wife was too. Politely, and only cringing a little, I ask, “What kinds of things does she like to write?”
He said, “She writes fantasy! She’s really good.” His kindness to me along with the way he glowed when he talked about his wife warmed my heart. I gave him a card.
Now, at lunch, she asks, “What do I have to sacrifice to be a writer?”
Ouch. My soup goes cold on the spot. How do I answer a question like that?
The first flippant response that comes to mind is a cliché. “Everything. You have to offer all of yourself on the altar of the muse.”
Then, “Time, your soul, and the beating heart of your first born.”
Colorful, but also bullshit.
Other clichés come to mind. “Beat your head against the wall until you can use the blood as ink in your pen. Sit down to the keyboard and open a vein.”
Luckily, the waiter interrupts with our order of tea before I say anything stupid. Sometimes, the universe is kind.
Grateful, I start doing what I always do when my mind is left alone with a question. I tease out the questions that make up the question.
Do you have to sacrifice for craft? For anything? Is craft painful? Can anyone answer that question for anyone else?
Then, the deeper issue hits me.
The question has an underlying assumption that there’s some reward for sacrificing—for the hard work of practice and study. The belief is that writing is somehow a meritocracy with rules for succeeding and penalties for not working hard enough or on the right things.
If we produce the right number of pages a day, do we get a passing grade? An A?
If we write the right book, do we get rewarded with a mansion?
If we spend enough time alone and depressed, will we be happy someday?
Do I have to have a cat?
Okay, I’m pretty sure writers have to have a pet or six of some kind, and that thought opens the gates to the flood of jokes in my mind.
How many divorces does a good writer go through? All of them.
Why don’t your kids ever call? I’m a writer.
How do you make a small fortune as a writer? Start with a large fortune.
Where’s your office? In the refrigerator box behind the bookstore.
When and where do you write? Late at night when I’m sure I’m alone, and I wash my hands when I’m done.
The waiter leaves. I look across the table. Her eyes are filled with hope that I will tell her what it will cost her to be a writer. Behind the hope, I see determination and fear. She wants to pay the price, and she is praying it is a price she can pay.
“Nothing,” I say. I smile and repeat. “You don’t have to sacrifice anything.”
Hope shifts to confusion. “I heard that writers have to—”
I can’t leave it alone. I interrupt. “Writers have to write. That’s all. That’s everything.”
“How much? I mean, how hard? Do I have to quit my job? What about my husband?”
I lock eyes with her. “Your husband loves you very much. The glow in his eyes and the excitement in his voice when he talked about you and your writing was the best compliment he could give you. He wants you to be happy.”
She blushes, and I am once more moved to like this young couple.
“If you like writing,” I say, “write. There’s no sacrifice. Do it because you like it. If you like doing it more, do it more.”
She nods as if she understands, but I can see the dark shadow of the Puritan Work Ethic haunting her psyche. American cultural training will cause her to strangle the joy and turn the pursuit of the magic relationship between word, mind, and heart into a chore.
“Look,” I say. “The question assumes there’s a goal, an end-point, a moment of success that you can reach if only you are willing to give up joys in life. That’s backwards. There’s only a process of engagement in life that includes writing. The joy in your husband’s eyes is life. Writing about it is sharing that joy.”
She squints at me. “I write fantasy.”
“And you want to sell it.”
“Put him in your fantasy the same way he has put you into his.”
She cocks her head like a crow trying to figure out if a bottle cap is food.
I backtrack and take another trail. “Do you think turning writing into a job will let you have money?”
“And what else? Will turning it into a chore make it pay off? Give you a new car? A house? Respect? When will you feel the moment of success in your distant future after all that hard work?”
She seems to think about it.
I eat my cold soup.
She says, “I read an article that said real writers treat writing like a job.”
I nod. “Maybe. What makes them real?”
“They get paid to write.”
“So, they don’t treat it like a job. It is their job.”
“How do you apply for the job?”
She sips her tea and thinks.
I ask, “Where do you go for an interview?”
Sudden confidence radiates from her smile. “Writer’s conferences.”
My mind spins up. In one way, she’s right. In several others, not so much. I say, “To interview with an agent? A publisher’s acquisition editor?”
She nods and smiles, sure she has found a path through the maze of questions.
“What if they say no?”
The smile fades.
“Does that mean you aren’t a real writer?”
Hesitantly, she says, “I guess not.”
“What if an agent says yes, but they don’t sell your work? What if a publisher says yes but never publishes the piece? Are you a real writer?”
The confused, disappointed look on her face makes me feel like I kicked a puppy. I have damaged her hope.
I didn’t come to lunch to discourage her. I remember many lunches with writers I admired. Almost all of them were encouraging, and I thank them all for their kindness and support. I have to turn this around before my sandwich arrives.
“Writers write,” I say. “They engage with the craft. It is a source of perpetual fascination—a path that can never be fully mastered and will forever challenge heart and mind. It teaches us to see the world. It lets us explore and share perspectives. Just doing it is the reward. If that’s how you feel about it, it isn’t a thing you have to sacrifice for. It’s a thing you get to do. Anything else that comes from it is extra.”
“I get it,” she says with confidence. “But I want to sell my stories.”
I feel like a puppy that has been kicked. I nod and focus on finishing my soup.
Her salad arrives. My sandwich arrives. The waiter leaves.
We dig in, and she seems happy with her lunch fare. I look at her salad and wonder what I can say that will lift the burden of false responsibility from her heart.
“Do you think the chef eats food they cook?”
She nods. “I imagine.”
“Do you think they only eat food they might sell?”
She looks up. She’s quick, and her smile tells me she has realized I’m back at my theme.
“Seriously,” I say. “Do you think they learned to cook only what they could sell, or do you think they learned to cook what they sell because they loved to cook?”
Wary, she says, “I’m going to say the second one.”
I nod. “What about tailors, painters, sculptors, and potters?”
“That’s different,” she says.
“They get immediate results. They can hold the thing they make in their hands.”
I pull out my pen, scoot a napkin close to me, and write a sentence on it. I hand it to her.
She takes it and reads it. “You are holding my sentence in your hands.”
“You know what I mean,” she says.
I say, “Watch a child fingerpainting and think about what they will look like standing in a gallery in thirty years. Will they still smile at the smell of the paint, at the moment when they dip a brush, at the smile on someone’s face when they see a piece for the first time?”
She looks awkward, now. Uncomfortable. I’m pressing too hard on her preconceptions about the struggling writer. I know I need to let it go, but I take one more chance on her.
“Take joy in writing. The more you write, the better you will get at giving your joy to others.” I start on my sandwich. I talk with my mouth full. “Sometimes, you’ll even get paid.”
She focuses on her salad.
We eat in silence for a while.
Eventually, she says, “I think I get it.”
I nod and smile. She has gone from sure she gets it to a little bit of doubt. That’s as good as I’m going to manage over one lunch.
As I walk home, I review the conversation. Walking into my office, I hope I heard myself.
I smile and sit down to the keyboard.