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You don’t have to be a writer

I know too many people who yearn to quit their jobs and become writers because they imagine that it’s somehow wonderful and freeing and everyone is super impressed with you. Or maybe they just want to wear their pajamas all day.

The thing is, writing is not a good career. It doesn’t pay well, if you can get paid at all. It doesn’t win you a whole lot of respect from the general public, or your relatives. You spend most of your day alone, and most of your time alone wrestling with your feelings of inadequacy. Your accomplishments, if they come, won’t satisfy you like you thought they would. Editors will frustrate you; publicists will drop the ball; critics will make you want to throw yourself into a pit.

There are plenty of good careers for someone who’s got a way with words. Don’t think you have to be a writer because it’s somehow an honorable profession, because it isn’t, not really, and you don’t.  Unless you do, and in that case there’s nothing I can say to stop you.

When I was in college, my friend Catherine introduced me to her parents, both of whom are writers, and told them I wanted to be a writer, too. Her mother smiled sadly at me and just said, “Don’t.”

These are two writers who, by any standards, are highly successful. They had both won Pulitzer Prizes. You can’t get much more successful than that. And even they didn’t think it was a worthwhile career.

I didn’t care. I mean, I did, but I knew I was going to be a writer anyway. I figured I’d have to cobble together a living wage doing non-writerly things–and I was right, by the way–but I also knew that I was doomed to be a writer. I’ve got no choice. If you’re going to do this, it should be because you have no choice.

There’s plenty of joy to be had, but it’s not where you think. It’s in the daily habit of work–of feeling what Martha Graham called the “queer divine dissatisfaction” that spurs you forward. It’s in losing yourself for hours in something that no one might ever see or appreciate. If that’s enough for you, then don’t let me stop you. Don’t let anyone stop you.

But please: don’t wear your pajamas all day. It’s not as much fun as you think.

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