The Writing Life

Laura Zigman, author of the novel
Laura Zigman, author of the novel "Animal Husbandry" (Greg Martin)
By Laura Zigman
Sunday, September 3, 2006

People often ask writers how they became writers. It is an exceedingly difficult question to answer because when you actually start to explain how you got to where you are, the person who asked you is already bored. This is because what they really want to know is how they can become a writer; how they can avoid your mistakes and pitfalls and go straight to the glamorous, exciting, fulfilling life that they assume you lead.

And who can blame them? After all, when you ask someone about their vacation, you don't actually want to see their slide show or their iMovie or read their blog or listen to their podcast or sign up on their Web site to receive their newsletter; you don't actually want to see their coffee-stained AAA maps with excruciatingly dull notations and corrections and opinions scrawled in the margins -- No bridge here; Construction there; Rest-stops on this stretch have no McDonalds, only Big Boys, the poor-man's Denny's -- yuck! People who want to become writers just want the facts. So here they are, as I know them, in as few words and with as little personal commentary as possible:

The first thing you should do when you decide you want to be a writer is to stop yourself from telling anyone you want to be a writer (stick a sock in your mouth if you have to). As a rule, most parents and guidance counselors (dream-killers) will try to dissuade you from following this career path (to nowhere). The root of their lack of support (extreme negativity) is that it's a painfully unwise (foolish) ambition to have since very few writers earn a living from writing. You will be told:

· to be practical ("Why not try technical writing or corporate communications writing or computer software manual-writing?")

· to get your head out of the clouds ("And how exactly will poetry pay the bills? The last time I checked, iambic pentameter was not an accepted currency.")

· to realize that your notion of wanting a career you love can be disproved linguistically ("If work was supposed to be fun it would be called 'fun,' not 'work.' ")

Since you are young enough to still believe in yourself (instead of only in people who try to talk you out of believing in yourself), you will bring the subject up again (repeatedly, in an oddly masochistic "Groundhog Day" kind of way). You will then be lectured on:

· the value of a dollar ("You can't just write more money.")

· what it was like to be in the army (even if that army never actually went anywhere or did anything)

· what it was like growing up during the Depression (depressing).

To top it all off, you will be labeled a dreamer (and the only thing worse than being a dreamer is being a dreamer who is foolish enough to actually pursue a dream).

If you are like most people (me), before you know it, you will agree wholeheartedly with your naysayers. "What was I thinking?" you will say to yourself every time the urge to write surfaces like an unruly weed, which you and everyone else keep trying to beat to death. "What could I possibly have to say that hasn't already been said by people a thousand times smarter than I will ever be?" Psychologists refer to this as the Stockholm Syndrome -- when captives begin to share the views of their captors. You will so fully internalize their message and adopt it as your own that you will eventually forget it wasn't your opinion to begin with.

You will now enter a long (seemingly placid but emotionally turbulent) period of denial that can sometimes last years (or decades). You will lie. "Who me? Be a writer? And put up with all that rejection? Are you kidding?" You will obfuscate. "Who would want to be a writer? Can you imagine being someone who wanted to be a writer?" When pressed, you will even philosophize: "If a writer writes something that never gets published and is thus never read, is a writer still a writer?"

In order to convince yourself and others that you have "moved on" (accepted defeat without even trying), you will learn to hide in plain sight: You will get a normal job, one with an actual office and an actual desk (engaging in "freelance work" from your apartment or working "odd jobs" with "odd hours" are dead giveaways of your true intentions and unconscious desires). In exchange for your 40 (or 50 or 60) hours a week of work (indentured servitude), you'll receive a respectable paycheck (let's be frank: not much more than you made waitressing in high school at the International House of Pancakes or working the drive-thru at Burger King) and medical benefits (to pay for psychotherapy, twice a week, to deal with the stress of all your repression). Most important, your job will provide you with some financial security and emotional stability (not to mention the perfect opportunity for people watching, eavesdropping, Internet research and working on something -- Fiction? Nonfiction? Comedy? Tragedy? -- even if you don't yet know what that something is).

In addition to the macro-lie (yourself as Career Drone), you'll see that you need to make up lots of little lies to protect your true identity (Secret Writer Person). You'll have to appear ambitious and deserving of promotions (show up before noon); pretend to embrace any and all career-enhancing business trips and client interactions (even though you see any time away from your true calling as a soul-deadening, blood-sucking diversion); and continue to dress the part (never complaining about how dumb it is that you have to spend all your money on work clothes when you could be home writing your novel in your pajamas).

And then one day, out of the blue, just when you think you're finally lost in the jungle, you will see it. You will look at all the papers and files and meaningless detritus on your desk, you will watch all your wonderfully idiosyncratic co-workers racing busily around the office, talking of Michelangelo, and you will stop whatever it is you are doing. The world you've tried so hard to join will suddenly cease to exist, and you will finally see that life without your dream is a wasteland; that you must at least try to do the thing you really want to do even if, in the end, you do not succeed at it. You will be tempted to put the better-to-have-loved-and-lost rule in parentheses, like everything else in your life that you've sidelined and tried to ignore up until now, but you will resist and settle for multiple hyphens instead. It is a step. You are about to head into the great unknown, and you will be tempted to throw away the map to your lost world in triumph, but don't -- you will need something to write on . ·

© 2006 The Washington Post Company