There’s a discussion going on right now on the mystery listserv Dorothy L, on the topic: “Are writers happy?”
Notice that the very asking of the question implies the opposite, doesn’t it?
I thought it was a question worth blogging about; it gives me the chance to expound on something that I’ve been mulling over this week.
You see, I’ve been car shopping, an activity that puts you into falsely intimate circumstances with strangers, and somewhat forces you to talk about what you do for a living. I always have the impulse to lie, because after all, why should I be the only one in the car telling the truth? But car shopping is stressful enough without having to remember what story you told which salesman, so I generally end up confessing. And it’s amazing how many of these guys (they’re all guys) said the exact same thing to me when I told them I was a writer.
“Living the dream...”
Now, either a staggering percentage of car salesmen secretly want to be writers, or this is a fairly common feeling that non-writers have about writers and writing. Or maybe both.
It’s good for me to be reminded that I have the dream job, because I’ve been doing it so long that I tend to think of my writing career as a morbidly obsessive, slimy, desperate slog through the mountains of Moria with no torch, pursued by the Orcs of my imagination and/or the business. (Insert your own metaphor, that just happened to be the first one that came to me. I can think of worse.).
On the other hand, maybe I’ve been able to make the writing life work for me for so long because I DON’T glamorize it. I don’t sit down at my desk (or in my bed) every morning thinking that what I’m about to do for the next seven hours is going to make me happy. I think – well, I KNOW - that if I’m lucky I will lose myself in the process enough that at the end of it I will feel sluggish and stupid and barely remember what I did that day, but if I do it and two or three hundred more days like that in a row there will be a book at the end of it.
And that – is a kind of satisfaction that makes all the tedium and terror of the process worthwhile.
Why that is I’m not even entirely sure. Because at the heart of it I’m a materialistic person and I need this stuff in my imagination to take solid form? Because it DOES make me happy that other people read and enjoy my books?
(And when I say MY books, I don’t really mean that. Because once the process is done, and I look at the book, it doesn’t really feel like I wrote it. It feels a lot more like I just brought this thing called a book back from some distant place, and when people praise me for it it’s really more like complimenting me on my mountain climbing or spelunking skills.)
Or is it just that old adage that if you’re a writer, you can’t do anything else?
Most of my happiness around writing has to do with (as Dorothy Parker said), “having written.” Because once you do that, you get to talk about the book with readers, the greatest pleasure of all, and go to writing conventions, which DOES make me happy because I get to be around people just like me, whom I don’t have to explain myself to and who maybe live life a little more fully in those moments because we’ve all just been momentarily let out of the cage we live in called writing.
But in terms of fun, teaching writing is a lot more fun than writing. I get to be with people who are still in love with the wonder of the process and who laugh at my jokes and when a workshop is over I am not still obsessively thinking about it for the rest of the day. Plus I feel like I've at least gotten some exercise, what with all that pacing around and wild gesticulation. Much more fun than sitting in a chair.
But I know that just teaching wouldn’t satisfy me the way writing books satisfies me. I think it has partly to do with mastery. When I was a kid and went to my first musical, I looked up at the dancers on the stage and thought (just like in that song from A CHORUS LINE) – “I can do that.” Of course, I couldn’t, not then, and it was a long, long, long time and several million dance classes before I could do my own triple pirouette, but when I finally DID? That click of – mastery – was the greatest feeling, a sense of accomplishment that never goes away, because it is in my body, now. I’d gone from dancing to being a dancer.
The feeling of satisfaction I get from finishing a book doesn’t last that long, honestly. I need to write book after book to get that feeling. But long ago I went from writing to being a writer. Just like with dancing, there is something in me that wanted the completion that only writing a book, and another book, and another, can give me. I’ve made that journey more times than I can count, and every single time I think I’m going to fail, but more times than not, I brought back a book.
Well, maybe that IS living the dream.
So I have to get back to the mountains of Moria. But for today, what do you think? Are writers happy?