A Message for the Rest of You: A Discouraging Word About the Lives of Writers
By James M. Palmer
(Note: I originally wrote this piece for Byline Magazine, but the editor said it didn't quite fit. Perhaps the tone is a little too dark for a magazine whose aim is to cater to aspiring writers. Anyway, I gave up trying to find a buyer for her. I know Writer's Digest wouldn't touch it; they'd lose their subscription base if someone tipped the little darlings off to the reality of what it takes to get published. But that's what the Website is for, so here it is.)
This missive is intended for those who think of becoming writers rather than actually sit down and start writing. For the real writers out there, nothing I say will discourage you or even come as a surprise. For those of you who think writing is some get-rich-quick scheme, I hope it will either discourage you or make you come at it with a different attitude. Please keep in mind that it is not my intention to discourage writing, but bad writing. I believe writing is a wonderful, noble profession. Otherwise, I wouldnít be doing it.
Writing, at least to the world at large, is a very strange trade. Part craft, part art, it is the only skill that most people think they can do extremely well without practice. A car mechanic doesnít buy a computer and immediately start trying to write programs. A plumber doesnít necessarily think he or she can wire a house for electricity. But talk to people long enough and you will eventually hear someone say "I could write, if only I had the time" or similar drivel. This attitude only makes writing a game, a way of getting around working a real job. Remember that the next time you tell someone what you do for a living.
Writing is a very misunderstood art form. The U.S. doesnít have a good track record for dealing with its artists, especially in this day and age, but if you are writing because you expect to be recognized when you walk down the street, forget it. Itís better to hope that you donít get recognized; one of the perks is anonymity. Writers will never be regarded in the same light as actors, athletes and rock stars. Youíll never get those great word processor endorsements either.
Writers are largely misunderstood. The mass of alliterate people who inhabit the earth donít get you, donít understand where your words and ideas come from. They donít understand what you and I take for granted: ideas such as sarcasm and metaphor; and concepts like the unreliable narrator and allegory. Say something contrary to their world-views, and theyíll burn every copy of your words. Write something besides a tell-all book about some celebrity, or diet book that says you can lose weight by eating a pound of lard per day, and no one understands a word of it. They donít understand you, either. They think youíre a little touched in the head. Think of all the stories about Stephen King. After all, he must be crazy to come up with stuff like killer clowns and rabid dogs, right? He must be touched in the head. This is what weíre up against, guys. People who either think writing is a get-rich-quick scheme, or a complete waste of time. People who havenít finished a whole book since high school--if then, fighting to get your books banned from their local libraries. Your friends may laugh at you. Your spouse may leave you. You may starve to death.
Now if youíre still reading this, after all of that, then there is hope. The wannabes will run away screaming, while the writers out there will try to prove me wrong. That is my hope, anyway. Writing takes boldness, skill, and talent and, like marriage, should not be entered into lightly. The writers out there already know this. They also know that itís tough to break in, but once youíre there, writing is the greatest high there is. Wannabes go into writing because of the desire to make money, and their work suffers accordingly. Writers work meticulously to make sure each sentence is perfect, and ask editors for suggested improvements if a manuscript comes back with a rejection slip. Wannabes mutter about conspiracies to keep their work from seeing daylight. Be a writer, not a wannabe.
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