Delusions of Writing

Writing is like singing. Anyone can croon a tune to a karaoke machine. Only a few can sing well enough to get paid for it. The same applies to dancing, acting, painting and whatever else people generally do for fun. Snow boarding, say.

I am quite sure you can sing well enough to entertain a few friends at karaoke with a little practice. But that will not even get you through the preliminary audition of American Idol, and you know it. So why do we have any different delusions about writing a novel?

They say that a musician is a guy who packs five thousand dollars worth of gear into a five hundred dollar car and drives a hundred miles for a fifty dollar gig. That is a pretty accurate description, and that is why most musicians keep their day jobs. Dancers, actors, painters, sculptors, snowboarders, what-have-you, they all know the reality of their craft and keep their day jobs.

Becoming an artist is not like becoming a carpenter, a plumber,  or an accountant. Those are “real jobs” (though writers hate the term) with real certifications, real quotas, real business standards. There is no such thing as a standard business practice for a dancer, or a quota for a snowboarder, or a standard proficiency level for a singer to meet. Just being “good enough” is not good enough for an artist.

And this is why people keep telling aspiring writers to “get a real job”. By a “real job”, they mean a job where you can get paid for being “good enough”. A carpenter who does good enough a job earns an hourly wage. There is no such thing as an arbitrary acceptable standard quality for a fiction writer. We are basically competing in American Idol.

We like to imagine that a writer is something like a cabinet maker or a gourmet baker; half artist, half craftsman. If we are good enough, we get paid. If we are exceptional, we succeed. Deep down, we know it is not true. Success as a writer is a randomly bestowed miracle, with a very high bar to clear just to get your voice heard at all. And then, if you are good enough to clear that first bar, you are given the privilege to jump through a series of hoops, the unlucky ones sifted off along the way, until finally you are granted your first printing, which is usually the last.

Have you ever seen an actor starve himself to skin and bone for a role, then build himself ripped up for the next? That is essentially the dedication expected from a writer. As Hemingway said, all you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed. We all bleed, and sing, and dance, and whore to the whims of the market place. But do we have a real chance at success?

Beware, beware, the dream. It will eat your soul and crap it out. And like crack addicts for mother’s love, we keep coming back; even when we should know by now that the old bitch had forsaken us long ago, and any attempt to find acceptance will be met with cold rejection; foolishly, we try again only to be frustrated.

Being good is not good enough. Being great is not good enough. If a handful of friends and family like your first draft, that is an encouragement, not a promise. You have not stepped out of that karaoke bar. You will not for a long while yet.

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