Just a heads up that in this one I’m writing about writing. It’s only right to tell you upfront. Most people take it as their cue to tune out – and justifiably so. Typically the refuge of the indulgent and inspiration-starved, where self-styled wordsmiths wank on about the torment of their ‘craft’. Basically, I don’t want you to get halfway through and realise you’d rather have spent the time searching videos of unlikely interspecies animal friendships.
First off, writing isn’t a calling. Certainly not for me. Attributing any part of one’s life to fate or some external universal force seems megalomaniacal in the extreme. All the more so when I can’t even lay claim to being much good yet. My car crash of a CV can attest to this.
The fact is I’ve only ended up here through an unwillingness to pursue a ‘real’ job. I’ve lacked the talent and/or desire to become something respectable like a doctor, architect, marine biologist, or pub quiz announcer. The invention and go-getting attitude necessary for entrepreneurship also elude me.
And so I write. Infrequently and to varying degrees of mediocrity. Sometimes I get paid. But to label it a career would be a greater work of fiction than anything I’ve produced to date.
Now I’m sure some find ruminating on the struggles of writing akin to grumbling about rain on an island holiday. A bitter luxury borne of relative privilege. If I don’t like it, why don’t I do something else, is the simple counter. The fact is, I do like it. More than most things. I’m even trying to do it now if you’d let me just…alright? Alright.
But it’s difficult. Far more than it’s usually given credit for. When you say ‘freelance writer’ (because ‘copywriter’ seems to confuse people) the assumption is that you’re either lucky or lazy. Or that it’s some kind of euphemism for unemployment.
When it comes to writers (and trying to identify as one), there’s a requisite arrogance that irks me. The surety that one’s thoughts warrant projection through a figurative megaphone. It’s super conceited. Every new piece a mind selfie, if you like.
We all know obnoxious creative-types. If you’ve ever been to a poetry slam, you’ll know that most of those people are the blurst. Like a guy I went to uni with, who wore unnecessary scarves and once proclaimed that his words were not his own. Rather, they came from some higher being, and he was just the vessel through which they couldn’t help but flow.
I’m not exaggerating. And this was in first year.
This bizarre bravado is fairly common. I’ve met a ton of quipping, posturing coffee-shop intellectuals who would have you believe they’re god’s gift. And yet, the lot of an aspiring writer is inherently fragile and plagued with insecurity. It really is a bi-polar mindset.
When showing someone a draft of your writing, the stakes are higher than any other medium. While an underwhelming meal by a trainee chef might simply betray poor technique, writing is someone laying out their innermost neuroses for scrutiny. It doesn’t even have to be as explicit as first person prose – you could be writing a series of murder mystery haikus about robot llamas in space – it still ostensibly boils down to your thoughts on paper. That makes it uniquely personal.
Part of the supposed appeal of being a writer is that you can keep your own hours. But it’s not something easily switched off. That’s fine if you have a foundation of acclaim to validate it. But most don’t. Each day is a tense bubble of drafting and redrafting. Even in the company of friends, you drift in and out, always refining some passage in your head. Sleep can be a problem.
An adversarial atmosphere builds within the brain. Your imagined audience becomes restless, starts to murmur.
“Ooh, I don’t know if I would’ve started the sentence like that.”
“I think he’s lost it.”
“I’m not sure he ever had it.”
Most ideas won’t see the light of day due to the exponentially dwindling faith in them. If I can draw back the curtain for a moment, these thoughts you’re reading now aren’t flowing in a coherent manner and filing obediently onto the page. This paragraph has already lived and perished in various forms. And this is the best it turned out (sorry).
In any case, it’s no surprise that writers are a nightmare to live with. Yo-yo-ing between arrogance and self-pity does not a recipe for social harmony make. They feast hungrily on flattery, only to reject it outright shortly after. It’s a life of praise-based bulimia, that invariably leaves you feeling fractured and empty. If you’re successful, at least you can claim the status of flawed genius. If not, you’re just a jerk with borderline personality disorder.
Quick! Look at me. Well don’t stare. What are you? A fucking voyeur? This is basically how I feel every time I post something.
Unfortunately, jamming unsolicited thoughts into the lives of friends, acquaintances and strangers is part of the deal. An aspiring writer who won’t show their work is like boasting the power of invisibility, on the condition that everyone closes their eyes.
And unless you’re keeping a diary for private catharsis, you do actually want people to read your stuff. But it feels like something verging on exhibitionism to have your inner monologue constantly on display. Even once you make peace with spruiking a link on social media, the pieces themselves are lousy with vanity.
“Everyone gather round while I tell you what I think about politics/relationships/society. It’s not even for a magazine or anything. Look at this pun I did. Isn’t it clever? [full disclosure: the original title for this piece was ‘Writer Without a Clause’…smelly] You and I both know this turn of phrase is phenomenal. That’s why I gave this sentence its own paragraph etc.”
You desperately hope to improve. Days are spent shambling around, half-present in conversations, sniffing around for significance. As a habit, you construct lazy symbolism and weak similes from all available stimulus (“…the cheese clung defiantly to the pizza box like a reluctant child to a door frame at bathtime. The laptop glowed, a spotlight through the hermitic gloom…”).
There are even times I’ve been in arguments or mid-breakup and caught myself thinking, “yeah, I could probably use this somewhere.” I’m not super comfortable with that.
Having to dwell on anxieties and comb through your backlog of shame as a daily ritual takes its toll. Wilfully marinating in dark thoughts is bound to alter you eventually. Perhaps this explains, at least in part, why so many authors are plagued by depression and substance abuse. Though there’s every chance it’s a chicken and egg scenario.
I don’t wish these struggles on anyone, whatever their vocation. But somehow, I find it oddly comforting knowing that even the best in the business don’t find it a breeze.
To say something in a new way – something of worth – that engages people, feels damn near impossible at times. You cling to the blind hope that synapses remain unimpeded long enough to form vaguely interesting thoughts. Then crudely stitch them together against an hourglass whose sands represent both time and confidence.
Maybe the bravado thing is just a front. A self-preservation tool, necessary for success. If so, I still can’t get on board. Those who build and genuinely believe their own hype – regardless of their ability to back it up – are so divorced from reality and common decency that it’s tough to warm to them as peers.
A rich man need not quantify his wealth for others. Likewise, talent is not elevated by being shouted from the rooftops. Although, certainly any lack of it will be highlighted.
If you’re the kind of supportive person to berate your writerly friend for a perceived lack of confidence, just remember, they’re just trying to do the decent thing. And if you’re going to ask to see a draft, at least buy them dinner first. Because that shit is intimate. Also, we’re poor.