Today I handed over a manila envelope containing five of my best short stories and the first chapter of my newly-completed novel to a reporter who works in the same newsroom as me. Entrusting her with these documents was like handing over a chunk of my personality. "Thanks," she said. "I've never known a real writer."
"Don't call me a writer," I said. "Until I've published something, it's embarrassing."
Being interested in an art or craft that takes forever to see any gain from is like living in a cabin in the middle of the mountains. There is no one else around if disaster strikes, and you spend most of the time wondering what the rest of the world is doing. Sometimes I wonder if I am even any good at writing. If rejection letters are any indication, I'm not. I've been published a couple of times, but nothing that I would be anxious to show people - an e-zine here, someone's little literary mag there. It is not what I had in mind. Trying to be successful and failing, at least for now, is the same sort of heartache as longing for someone you can never be with.
We've all heard the old story that John Grisham got up at 5 a.m. every morning to write and sent his first manuscript to 26 different publishers before it got accepted. When I tell that to fellow unpublished writers, they say "Blech. I hate John Grisham." But that's not really the point... You can hate him all you want, but he is a writer and we're not.
A lot of writers I know treat what they do with overblown reverence, as if the world would collapse if they weren't around to observe it. But when you're an unknown whose publishing credits are basically a couple of stories in someone's e-zine, it's more like needlepoint. You sit there for hours, deep in concentration, making your hands sore over a pillow cushion that will never make you any money. Maybe you can show it to a couple of your friends, and they'll smile and say it's nice, but it will never net the amount of time and effort you put into it. It's just something you do because you love to do it. If you don't love to do it, you stop.
Sometimes I think about all of the other things I could be doing if I weren't sitting here creating characters and plots and making new Microsoft Word documents. Maybe I'd play on a baseball team. Maybe I'd find a better job. But not writing would be like feeling the pains of an amputated limb. It would always be there, hovering over you, because if you stop now, everything has been in vain.
A former acquaintance of mine used to want to talk to me about writing because he figured our experiences were one and the same. Except he would add that he hadn't written anything in two years because he hadn't had the time. As if that was the reason why he wasn't a writer: free time. All the free time in the world will not get you where you need to be with writing. Only experience and pure, balls-out determination will. It's like being 15 and wanting more than anything in the world to drive a car. You can't force it. You have to let it happen on its own, and when the opportunity presents itself, you work your ass off in Driver's Ed.
If you want to know the truth, sometimes I hate writing. If I could walk away tomorrow and never experience another rejection letter, or someone saying "Please consider us again with more material" when what I sent them was the best I could do, I would. I would trade the self loathing and the scrutiny for a lifetime of not giving a shit, and never again ending a letter with "I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience." I don't know why I can't.