Many of us have a disease. It might be more accurately termed a parasite. It buries itself inside of us and refuses to let go. Sometimes it influences our thoughts. Other times it dictates them. It can overwhelm us, block us, plunge us into despair and control us and yet, it will make us feel delighted every now and again, and that’s enough to sustain the infection in its host.
I first became infected when I read Emerson and Thoreau in high school. There’s a cruel way English is taught in school, from Shakespeare onward (you only get Beowulf or Chaucer if you’re lucky). We read all these authors and are led to suppose they all lived these idyllic existences, doing whatever they wanted and writing as they pleased. The Byrons and Shelleys, the Emersons and Thoreaus, they lead us willingly into a grand mirage of the writer’s life.
I had been to a Borders for the first time in high school, surveyed all the books, and pondered the obviousness of the situation: if there were so many books of poor quality, of dubious claims, of frivolous titles and rows of books I found no interest in, it would not be that hard at all to get a book of my own up onto the shelves. Surely there was a place for my own creation, and it wouldn’t even be that hard.
No English teacher had told me how hard it was to write. Writing essays came naturally to me (I would consistenttly write well over the page limit), and with the lifestyles of Hemingway and Steinbeck the gig didn’t seem half bad either. I could go shoot big game in Africa or bunk down in the Keys. I could go on road trips with my dog. I could even live, if I chose that universal writer’s dream given to us by Thoreau, to go write in the woods and do as I pleased.
The writer’s life is ever hidden from naive school age children. When we are that age, we are never told that writers can have hard lives, that for centuries they have had second jobs just to sustain their habit, or that many of them have become depressed and killed themselves (even with all that house in the Keys and all that hunting). When children are taught novels or poems the teacher never really explains that it might have taken months, years, or decades to write a draft, painstakingly edit it, rewrite, edit some more, and then finally publish a work. After all my years of schooling I was operating under the assumption that writers would open up their laptop or take out their pen and a work would be created ex nihilo and just fill up the pages.
I would often picture my writer self. I was sitting in a cabin. I would write carelessly but never recklessly. I had no cares in the world because writers seemed to always have enormous amounts of free time and could just go traveling or on vacation or teach if they really wanted to. I had friends who would come and gallivant with me, who would want to talk about politics and philosophy and sit around enjoying the niceties of life. It seemed grand. It matched perfectly all of the black and white illustrations that adorned the biographies in the literature anthologies of middle school and high school.
It took the job realities of the post-college life for me to realize that bags of money did not get mailed to writers after they had sent an essay to the New Yorker or that publishers didn’t just come knock on your door and tell you they wanted to publish your work. There was so much to the real writer’s world that seemed difficult to comprehend and impossible to decipher. The submission process, the waiting, the rejection letters!―it had not seemed possible that a piece that was of value would ever be rejected. I had assumed that there was a sort of infinite space for publication, and good material always rose to the top like cream.
The harsh realities of the writer’s life began to sink in as well. I had thought, wrongly, that most writers were sons and daughters of the Renaissance. I thought they did certain things or held down certain jobs because they were good at more than one thing, that Chaucer was an ambassador because he had free time, Hawthorne worked in import-export because he was in the mood or that Tolkien taught at Oxford because he wanted to give back to society. I slowly began to realize that these weren’t just “fun facts” in an author’s biography; they were testimonies to the economic realities of the writer’s life: that the economics were stacked squarely against you.
The myth of editing was a harder habit to break as well. I was (and hope I still am) a natural writer, and I never had to listen to what my high school English teachers said about brainstorming, outlining, or editing for meaning. Words just flowed. Everything made sense. I could just hit F7 for spell check and be done with it. But when I entered graduate school I had a real job. I was married. I needed to budget time. I needed papers to be good, really good. It had gotten to the point where I could no longer just wing it. So, I naturally pulled out all the lesson plans and textbooks I had from student teaching and began to practice what I preached to students: to do all those important pre-writing and writing activities. I was now a far cry from my writing self, that person I imagined in the cabin who just wrote down words as if it was a part of involuntary breathing. Writing had become work.
It’s sweet justice that now, as I teach writing to college students, that they look at me with shock, disbelief, or disgust when I mention pre-writing activities. Only a few days ago, I told my new class that they would have to show evidence of brainstorming and attach an outline to every paper in the class, so that there would be evidence that real work had gone into this paper, and murmuring ensued. One girl pleasantly harrumphed and rolled her eyes at me.
In my class last semester, a student mentioned that he had found my personal website (oh no…) and read part of one of my papers (commence awkward gazing at the floor…) and thought it was really good (thanks!). He wondered out loud how easy it must have been to write it. I told them I used to think it was easy to write, but that it’s actually hard. I shared with them that I don’t have any special gifts or talents, I practice the art of writing in the same way I had been telling them all semester: organization, editing, proofreading, good sentence structure and so on. Writing was not glamorous. It was work. There was no way around it.
Writing, even when it’s a way to reflect or pass the time, is still work. It’s always fun, but not in the way I had imagined fun. It just doesn’t happen. When you rub your pencil against paper it doesn’t bring forth art, just like banging two logs together doesn’t produce a flame. My writer’s life is not anything special anymore. My writer’s life and my “normal” life are one.
I am writing this as I gaze out a window, but it’s not out into the woods from an antique desk in a beautiful cabin. I’m looking at a Jeep Liberty still covered in snow. I am swaying gently side to side trying to keep the three month old who was just pinching my bicep asleep. It’s not glamorous at all. It’s not the writer’s life I had imagined. These words did not come easy. I hit delete many times. There are red lines under some words, blue lines under others. I’m just about done. Now. Good, now I need to go back and edit.