Are writers happy?

 by Alexandra Sokoloff

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?


17 thoughts on “Are writers happy?

  1. Burl Barer

    I am happy when I am writing. I am terrified when I read what I have written. I fear that I have failed, that my talent has dried up, that this will be a disappointment to those who entrusted me with the project. Then I look at my royalty statements, my awards, my fan mail, my troll attacks and remember the words of my editor — "The only review that matters is the one from your publisher asking you for more books,"
    With each advancing year, i remind myself that there are savants in all the arts except writing because writing a novel requires life experiences and the perception of adult emotions, and an understanding of inner dialog. I have never been a "hot young author" or a "rising literary star." As my craft becomes more seasoned, the customers may prefer bland take out. I write for the market — the market where I shop, the market where I buy my groceries. The prostitution of art and literature is something which I alternately decry and embrace. One person's degeneration is another's liberation. Am I happy. Who cares? Anyone can be happy when everything is to their liking. To be happy when you are miserable, that's the key.

  2. Barbie

    Well, I can't tell you. But I'm happy when I write. I'm happy when I get to hang out with my characters and I'm happy when I get to read something I wrote and like what's there. I'm glad when I live some stories that aren't my own. Mostly, I'm happy to have these friends that I know won't just leave me <3 And that I find out new things about them all the time!

    I also love teaching writing — though I don't teach creative writing — as I teach ESL, I teach writing in English and it's my absolutely favorite thing! Even as they're writing letters, articles, essays, my students can be so… creative and smart and funny. I'd love to teach creative writing some day.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Barbie, you've nailed one of the chief pleasures of writing for me: "I'm glad when I live some stories that aren't my own." Amen to that!

    I didn't know you taught ESL. Good for you! Teaching is fun.

  4. Matt Roberts

    Writing for me is having the ability to tell a story in a way that maybe someone else can't. And I love telling stories, often when others don't want to hear them. Knowing that several hundred people have my book is an awesome feeling. For now I can't imagine what it would be like to have 1000 people reading my book, or 10,000 or more, a few hundred is awesome to me. And I didn't make a dime on those sales because they were all during a free giveaway. So it's not about the money for me, it's just about sharing a tale with others who would like to hear or read it. In that respect, I am totally happy being a writer. I would love if more people got enjoyment out of my stories, but I'll take what I can get. For me, I am living the dream and I'll always feel that way.

  5. Jude Hardin

    "That click of ā€“ mastery ā€“ was the greatest feeling, a sense of accomplishment that never goes away, because it is in my body, now. Iā€™d gone from dancing to being a dancer."

    I think this is why "happiness" (see my brief take on the concept here: is so elusive for some writers. We never really feel like we know what the hell we're doing. Sue Grafton said something to that effect in an interview recently, that even after all the books she has written (W, the 23rd novel in her alphabet series, will be published this fall), she still flounders around and wonders how everything somehow comes together in the end. She and I are kindred spirits in that we don't outline, so maybe the folks who DO outline have a better sense of mastery over the craft, and therefore a better handle on happiness. I don't know. I sometimes wish I was the type of writer who could implement your teachings, Alex, but I'm just not. So I guess I'm doomed to this feeling of melancholy ineptitude a good portion of the time. At least I'm not alone. šŸ˜‰

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Jude, I may teach what I teach, but I still flounder around as much as anyone. You should have seen me last week – total wreck! IF I can remember what I teach, though, I know how to get myself back on track.

    I get a feeling of mastery about writing when other people read a book of mine and actually get the experience from it that I was trying to capture. That above all else is what keeps me writing.

  7. Scott Nicholson

    That is weird because I don;t self-identify as a writer, and I rarely publicly identify as a writer (only when I have no other choice, as you did.) Back when I was a reporter i could say I was a reporter, and people understand that. None of the weirdness.

    But now that I write fiction for a living, I still don't identify with it as "what I am." Because I am an organic gardener, an occasional carpenter, painter, etc. I was a musician–and if they tried to get the band back together, I'd probably be sorely tempted, even though it wasn't successful and I'm not that talented.

    Even in my writing job, I'm not "just a writer." As a self-publisher, I wear many hats and enjoy them all. Writing is just product creation–although I do see writing as art and craft, something important enough to do not just for money. Because really, I write less now that I can make money at it than I did when I was doing it to tell myself something.

    My books were all buried in boxes in the closet until my wife made me "organize" and put them on shelves–but I don;t look at them with emotional attachment. All I remember is the time period of my life, not how many times they got rejected or how many copies they sold.

    I used to think of writing as something "I am." Now I think of it as just one of the many things that make up what I am. To me, it's all about the journey and the occasional discovery. A play on the old saying "It's better to be happy than write."

  8. Allison Davis

    Seeing the photos from Garth with his dog, I'd say happiness is within reach. And, without writing, I'd feel lost, unanchored.

  9. JD Rhoades

    "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."

    Yep, that about sums it up. And right now I'm wrapped in spider silk with my eyes rolled back in my head.

  10. PD Martin

    Hi Alex. Great blog. And I've said it before but I'll say it again…we're just so in sync here at Murderati. It's incredible. Regulars probably think we plan this stuff! My blog on the writing high (and the happiness of writing) and then your blog today!

    Anyway, I think most writers I know are happy with the writing process and do feel like they're living the dream. But the realities of trying to support themselves with their writing tend to get them down. I'd put myself in this boat, too!

    Sometimes I think…"I'm living the dream….but I'm wondering how we'll be able to pay the next bill!"

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