Christopher Bundy meditates on whether being a writer is still worth it to him.
There are some days when I’d just as soon give up.
Over drinks with a writing friend recently, I confessed that I believed I could be happy not writing ever again. And I say confession because as all writers understand: to suggest that you don’t breathe and eat and sleep writing, that you don’t need to write, is profane. It’s like a priest saying he could be happy without God, like a mountain goat saying it could be happy without the mountain. Saying shit like that gets you kicked out of the writer’s club. You just can’t say it and ever be considered legitimate again.
As I confessed my sometimes desire to quit, my friend shook his head. Nope, nope, nope. He didn’t believe it—mountain goat, no mountain.
“You won’t be able to do it,” he said, shaking his head further as he threw back a shot of tequila and chased it with a PBR, a consequence of his own struggle with writing, I suspect.
Maybe I don’t need writing. I certainly can’t subsist on it. I can’t eat writing and sometimes it makes me nauseated, although I do get to correct others’ use of “nauseous” thanks to an affinity for DFW, which to everyone else just makes me an asshole. Who cares? I can pay only a fraction of the bills with writing. I can’t sit or sleep on it. I can’t use it as a life raft, survival shelter, or weapon when the zombie apocalypse hits. And look at what writing does to me instead:
- Leaves me guilty for not doing it.
- Leaves me resentful of other elements of my life when said elements prevent me from getting to the desk, when the fault is clearly not said elements’.
- Has turned me into an insomniac and possibly an alcoholic and God knows what else, as if the addictions and personality disorders and rage are a perverse consolation for the writing life.
- Has made me poorer than I should be.
- Leaves me eager to discuss the use of serial commas or nauseous vs. nauseated with gusto.
- Takes time away from my family, as I attempt to write, submit and promote my writing, and chronically check various sites for sales, reviews, or replies.
- Has rendered me a manic depressive (or at last part-time depressive) as I suffer the rejections and criticisms that lead to self-doubt and anxiety for the perceived failures so that I feel more like giving up than writing.
- Puts me in the company of other writers who suffer the same, God help us all.
Poor me, you’re likely saying by now. Just like we thought—another spineless artist who can’t succeed in the free market because he writes stuff nobody wants to read and then complains when nobody cares unless you’re writing about vampires, zombies, or weirdly rapey love stories. Yep, that’s about right. I’m no different. But I can still explore this wiggly tooth—after all, that’s what I do. At least until I quit.
Maybe it’s enough for me to be an effective and inspiring teacher, a good parent and husband, a loyal friend and helpful neighbor, each of these jobs already paying the price for my “need” to write. Maybe it’s enough for me to say that I did my best but let’s not carry this to the bitter grave. I’ve had some success—published essays and stories, some good ones, too, in good pubs, probably read by only a handful of peers, but certainly work to be proud of. I published a flawed novel. I have completed another, less flawed, nearly finished yet another, and embarked on at least two others, in addition to countless unfinished essays and stories, and all those starter files with perhaps only a single first sentence or an idea hastily scratched out that I remember neither dreaming up nor writing down.
If I quit writing, I’d no longer suffer the near weekly pounding I get in the form of rejection emails, or even complete nonresponses, leaving me so scrambled and depressed that I can only sit before the television watching local news wondering if I should have been a weatherman, ignoring my daughter who sits on the couch beside me, herself wondering what makes her daddy go quiet and then angry and then curled up in bed like a hibernating bear. Would she be happier if I’d been a weatherman, or a landscaper or a house painter or an administrator of something, so that when I came home I’d leave the work behind and concentrate on those other things that make me happy, like her.
If I quit writing, I’d read a book as a reader, not as a writer. I wouldn’t dissect each and every sentence for its quality, not unravel the plot to see just how the author both engaged me and left me suspended until I reached the end, not wonder at the complexity of the character I’d just spent days with as I peeled layer after layer of intricate characterizations, in awe of the talent of the young and younger (inevitably so these days as I only get older) writers who wove them into the knotty—but oh so simple—story and did so via sentences that seemed easy because they were elegant and beautiful and spoke of hours and hours of revision and rewriting.
If I quit writing, I could invest more in my teaching, the very profession I never thought I would embrace but have. As a writing teacher, I believe I need to offer myself as at least an example of someone who writes, whether that writing is mainstream or experimental or read at all. But what if I didn’t? I could pour all of my energy and creativity into being a more effective and inspiring teacher. And I don’t need to be a writer to teach literature. In fact, I find I enjoy teaching literature more than writing these days, the class more akin to a book club in which we get to explore beautiful texts in the luxury of a small setting. A class in which I get to see more often than not the flash of joy and wonder and surprise in a young reader’s face when discovering a new world. We don’t read like writers in lit class; we just enjoy reading, the discovery of what waits at the end of each sentence, chapter, and story. We enjoy it for the same reason we first enjoyed Stevenson’s Treasure Island as a kid, Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions as a teen, O’Connor’s short stories as a student, and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory as an adult.
If I quit writing, my wife would never again have to entertain both my new drafts, each of which I’m excited about and need her to read and respond to as soon as possible—you know, just so I can get another pair of eyes on the thing, and revisions of old drafts.
If I quit writing, I’d talk about something else over dinner for a change.
If I quit writing, I wouldn’t have to turn to my daughter saying let’s play, daddy, and answer Just five more minutes, sweetheart. Got to finish this, got to get this down before I forget it.
If I quit writing, I’d stop dreading those party encounters in which I introduce myself as a writer, and wait for them to ask if I’ve written anything they might know, so I can say, No, probably not.
If I quit writing, I’d relax for five goddamned minutes without thinking about what I’m working on.
If I quit writing, I’d go to a bookstore and not look for my book on the shelves.
If I quit writing, I’d no longer have to consider whether it’s better to publish for free and access some much-needed attention and readers or wait it out until I find, if ever, a publication or press that pays for my hours and hours sometimes years of work, because, lest we forget—it is work.
If I quit writing, I’d go to an author’s reading and sit for the pure enjoyment of hearing someone else read aloud, enjoying the rhythm of their well-crafted sentences without rewriting them in my head or moving on to one of my own all the while losing the story to which I’d been listening.
If I quit writing, I’d no longer compare myself to those giants of contemporary writing who are apparently capable of sitting at a desk for uninterrupted hours, writing, writing, writing, each session an interim of joy rather than guilt-ridden torture, and then still have the time and energy enough to post on Facebook that they did so.
If I quit writing, I’d stop writing essays about writing. I’d accept that this hostility between writing and me is my problem. I’d accept that my drowning in guilt, misery, self-doubt, and angst is not because the grand act of writing is pulling me under. Nope. I’d recognize that the rage is my weakness, my failure. Which surely it is. But if I quit writing, I wouldn’t have to think about that ever again. The past is the past. Wash my hands of all that.
Maybe it’s the looping Brian-Eno-like desert landscapes waiting to be occupied, the only music I can listen to anymore when writing.
And here we arrive at our contradiction, the one you knew was coming: here I sit—writing. Is it because I am driven to? Or is this the last trip at the bar before I enter rehab?
I suspect it’s neither. But here I am at the desk, finding joy, yes, joy and gratification, in that work as I inevitably do, because I’ve written for my allotted time, no matter what I’ve written or if what I’ve written will ever see print or even be worked on again—these days just an hour, perhaps more if the schedule permits, even when that work is writing about the often-unpleasant consequences of that work to avoid working on a new project that has hit the brakes. Knowing that for the rest of the day the sun will shine brighter, my face in the mirror will appear younger, those deepening creases less of a slip in my facial foundation than character lines, music will sound better, more impassioned, I will eat healthier and that food will taste better, I will walk with more bounce in my step, more smile in my smile, and I will be more fully accessible to my daughter, more generous with friends and strangers too, more loving and kind with my wife. Because today—I wrote.
So, here I am at work and happy about it, even if right now I am drooling over the idea of unclogging a clogged drain in my daughter’s bathroom, something I know that with a bit of elbow grease and deductive reasoning I can overcome. I can fix it. A blank page, perhaps, that I can render alive. There in that clogged and soon to be unclogged drain is an absolute I will never achieve with writing: knowing that I have done something outright without having to wonder whether it might be better if I’d started differently or used another point of view or wrote it as nonfiction instead of fiction. There is no perfection in writing, no guarantee that what I do will produce results. No warranty on my work. It’s there for me if I want it, an indefinite rightness all I can ever expect to accomplish.
And all I have to do is turn up at the desk each and every day; turn off my phone, close my browser, my email, and my door, my other life so that I can seek that questionable pleasure, that contentment of having written. Because that’s all there is. The joys of writing are tenuous enough. The joys of writing are not found in the live reading before a generous audience, though that can offer the pretense of success and pleasure, or on the bookstore bookshelf where I see for the first time the spine of my new book or in the sympathetic but frank book review or the Facebook share or the moment when someone says, Hey, I liked your story in— No, that satisfaction is a cheap imitation of the real thing. Those are the fleeting pleasures of the writer, not of the writing itself.
The transient pleasure I derive from writing happens in the shadowy place between me and the keyboard. When I’m alone, when I’ve managed to block out everything else in the world that matters to me and focus for an hour on what’s directly before me—a blank page. When I fill the empty page with words that did not exist an hour ago. When I create a world out of thin air. When I feel those words start to connect one to another and matter in a way they didn’t five minutes earlier. When I touch something in myself I’d forgotten was there or never knew was there at all. When I can’t move my fingers fast enough to get the words in my head to the page. When I feel something shift inexplicably in my gut and recognize that shift like a heroin addict realizes the first push of dope in their veins. When I’ve written well past my apportioned hour and forgotten that clogged drain and can’t stop because I don’t want to leave the place I’ve clumsily but lovingly built and inhabited.
When I allow myself to write, and forget that the day before when I didn’t write, for whatever stupid reason, that I thought again of quitting. And then I remember why I didn’t—and I do.