I get a lot of emails from people who want to publish a book, which is an entirely different thing from wanting to write, and that’s a distinction hopefuls should be clear on. Writing is something more like a calling – you do it or you don’t do it, you can write your whole life & never publish, you enjoy it or you do it because something in you compels you to.
Being a published writer is a whole other can of worms, since publishing comes with agents and editors and publicity and amazon.com sales ranks. That’s a different game altogether, but I assume that most people who ask me about writing their own book want to know what it’s like publishing their own book. I recently wrote back to one such person and this is what I said:
I wouldn’t write if I could do anything else. It’s just too hard. Your books are your babies, and as soon as you write something, people assume it’s okay to rip you a new one. That is, I don’t mind bad criticism – well I don’t like it either – but you learn how to deal with it in writing workshops. At least I did. You want to write better, and good critics can help you do that, if you listen to them. However, there are a lot of people who are just hyper-critical, & you have to deal with them, too, which is not always as easy.
Then, there’s very little money. One writer I know who had a bestseller won’t quit her day job because as the publishing industry will frequently remind you: you’re only as good as your last book. Richard Russo didn’t quit teaching till he won the Pulitzer! So the reality is, with writing, you always need another job, and it’s very hard to do two jobs well. That is, if you love the 2nd job, it never gets as much attention as you’d like, & neither does your writing. It’s always feeling a little torn in half. So the ‘making a living’ aspect of it pretty much blows.
What else? It’s hard. It takes patience. If you’re ever in NYC I can show you my stack of rejection letters, and there’s no writer alive that doesn’t have a bunch of those. (Ironically, I think it’s Melville who holds the record, & most of them are rejection letters from publishers who didn’t want Moby Dick.) There’s a lot of ways to be cheated – by publishers, agents, etc. – that you have to be on the lookout for, and publicity support from publishers is getting worse & worse.
& Of course you have to keep track of your ego, realize that people think they know you even when they don’t, and you have to be able to speak well on radio, on TV, & anywhere else.
Mostly I’m appreciative that the books I write have helped people. It’s a pleasure to be able to use whatever communication skills I have in order to relieve some people’s suffering. I haven’t had a novel published yet, but even having friends read my fiction is satisfying. Basically, there’s this unnameable thing about writing that is cool and satifying in a deep way for me, and as Betty would tell you, I never radiate more “happy buzz” than when I’m working on something.
But do I like it? No. If I could find something else that would scratch that existential itch the same way, I would do it. But short of creating Tibetan sand mandalas, I can’t really imagine doing anything that feels more time-consuming, detail-oriented, or more tenuous. A long time ago, & without my permission, writing became my way of talking with myself in order to make sense of my world. It doesn’t always work, but it keeps me from gunning down strangers, at least.