A COUPLE OF WEEKS ago, I had an existential crisis. These are not new, my existential crises, I have them every now and then, but this time it was greater, darker, more looming than it ever had been before. Usually, I shake it off with some distraction, but this one was the Moby Dick of crises, it was this great white whale of depression, it towered over me like the wave in Hokusai’s print. And it was all to do with my writing career.
I was sold a dream. Before—when I was in college, before that, when I was in school, after, when I had my first job and then my second job and my third job, I imagined the luxury of being able to write uninterrupted. I would be the best kind of writer, I promised myself, someone instantly well-regarded and who made money off her books. I would be people’s ‘favourite author,’ I would be taught at schools and colleges almost instantly. If you came across me in my study, I would be the picture of elegance, a sort of young Meryl Streep of the writing world, except more brown, less blonde. I saw my writing as a way to calm the chaos of my life, but also a thing that would take me to the world, and the world would open up its arms and embrace me, all the way from Iceland to Australia. I was told that if I came close enough to one part of the dream—a full-time writer! a published book!!—that the other parts of the dream would fall into place.
I see this shitty saying wherever I go, it’s so insidious, so dangerous: do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life is one version. Another, which I had on my shelves for a long time was: doing what you like is freedom, liking what you do is happiness. So here I am, doing what I like, doing what I love, performing the one skill that I have, the skill I use as a lens to view the world, and where’s my deep abiding nirvana-esque joy? Why am I still so dissatisfied? Here I am, living the dream after all. Is it possible that the dream is not enough?
At least I’m not the only one feeling this way. Two articles I read recently confirm it. The first was called Why Does Writing Suck and was published on the website, The Cut. Quoting Beth Rapp Young, an associate professor of English at the University of Central Florida, who has done extensive research on the subject of basically ‘why writing sucks,’ the piece says, ‘Writing feels directly tied to a writer’s self-worth in a way that less communicative professions don’t.’
The second article was from The Guardian, and was headlined ominously: There Is No Safety Net: The Plight of the Midlist Author. From the article: ‘Louise Candlish had 11 novels under her belt when, a couple of years ago, she found herself considering quitting. “Some of them had really flopped,” she says. “I had got myself into that catch-22, where your sales figures aren’t as healthy as they once were or as good as retailers would like. So then your book comes out and it’s not stocked in as many places, so it doesn’t sell as well. Then you’re writing your next one and it won’t earn as much money, as they’re looking at what happened to the one before. You’re almost doomed to continue the pattern.’” Reader, that is me.
The thing is, I have tasted the sweet, sweet honey of success. My first book You are Here (2008) did better than my wildest dreams. Of course, I know that triumph was due to a number of mitigating circumstances, which can be boiled down to essentially being in the right place at the right time. Since then I have written six more books—seven if you count the one I am working on right now—and sent each one out into the world with crossed fingers and a beating heart. I’m doing okay, I have regular readers, and new ones who discover me with each new book, but I’m not doing okay enough. I look around at my writing peers: debut novelists who are publicised everywhere, non-fiction authors being lauded and prize-given, and I’m wondering where I figure. Am I done already? I don’t want to be a household name after my death, dammit. I’m not interested in living forever, I just want what was promised to me now. I followed my dreams, and I’m good at what I do, so where is it? Where is it?
And then I actually talk to the Other Writers, the ones who I sometimes have to unfollow from social media, so bilious is my envy, and they’re also looking around them going, “Something is missing. Why aren’t I as happy as I thought I’d be? Why aren’t I as successful as that guy?” And I assure you That Guy is also thinking the same thing, all the way up to the top of the ladder where Neil Gaiman and JK Rowling and Stephen King live.
Maybe the problem is millennials. I count as one, albeit a very old one. Maybe we were taught to follow our dreams and our passions and so on, all of us special little snowflakes, but we weren’t told what it feels like once you’re there. Writers aren’t the only people feeling this way, I talk to other friends in different professions, and across the board their complaints are the same. To quote the Peggy Lee song: is that all there is?
Maybe the problem is millennials. Maybe we were taught to follow our dreams and our passions, all of us special little snowflakes, but we were’ told what it feels like once you’re there
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Our parents were busy hustling to pay the bills, we talk about ‘adulting’ when we’re performing basic human tasks, especially those of us without children. The oldest of us Old Millennials are pushing 40, and in a panic, we’re wondering why our lives aren’t looking the way they’re supposed to. It’s easy to blame social media for our high expectations, but the fact of it is that our needs pyramids have changed: from ‘buy a big house’ to ‘travel across the world’ from ‘a room of one’s own’ to ‘being invited to all the literary festivals.’
Here’s how I climbed out of my crisis. I remembered what else writing can do. It brings me delight. To be able to write about all this, to be able to chart these uncertain waters for others, that makes me happy. I know I’ve said it the way I want to say it. I know the words are the words I wanted to use. This is the process, it’s great and it’s terrifying, and when it’s done right it can send such a bolt of good feeling to your inner soul that you spend your whole life searching for the feeling again and again. There are times when I write something good, and I think to myself, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.” I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s hard work, oh boy, is it ever hard work. There are days when you feel like you’re literally giving birth to something out of your head, like Zeus and Athena. There are days when you hate the ‘homework feeling,’ a writer’s job is never done, there’s always the next project, because where are you, who are you, without your writing? But that moment? That singular light-from-the-heavens, toe-tingling, brain-zapping moment of being exactly where you want to be, saying exactly what you want to say? That’s not something I could get anywhere else.