Hello, my name is Seth Pollins and I am a writer. I say this, today, not as a fist-pumping gesture. I say this in the spirit of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I admit defeat. I’m addicted. I do not always feel this way, that my impulse to write is actually governed by uncontrollable compulsion, but today, an otherwise cheery, bright day in Ambler, I do.
I am a married man, childless, creeping towards my mid-thirties, and I’m currently working on my–I’m embarrassed to say this–sixth novel. I’d like to think that the time I spend writing is productive–that I write not because I expect my work to take me somewhere, but because I believe that perseverance just might. But I have to admit, writing often feels like a compulsion to me; and my writing life does share a certain affinity with the life of an addict.
Right now, I divide my time between two types of work: work that makes money; and work (my writing) that makes no money. Although I do enjoy my moneymaking work, I often feel “unpleasant symptoms” when I am engaged in it. In reality, I’m suffering withdrawal from my writing. At work, I tell myself: I am not doing what I want to be doing. I am not doing what I am meant to do. It depresses me, creates anxiety. I often have this urge: to just quit my job, to go home and write. That wouldn’t be very responsible, would it? And yet, I think about it all the time.
How many writers, successful and not, believe this is so: Writing is what your meant to do?
I think of the seemingly delusional contestant on “American Idol”, the contestant who struts into his tryout with absolute certainty: I am the next American Idol. Even before he sings it’s obvious: this guy will fail; this guy will torture (or delight, depending on your perversity) in some serious way. Then he opens his mouth and your fear/glee is confirmed: he is terrible. How could he not know? He’s twenty-eight! How could he have made it this far not knowing how bad he really is? He had tried for so many years, but it’s obvious: all along he had been failing. Day after day, year after year, he had been failing. I sometimes wonder if these contestants really have worked so hard. And yet, what if they have? It certainly throws the value of perseverance into question. Yet, without perseverance, what does he have?
Recently, I posted a letter from my uncle, a poet, on my blog. In the letter, written to me when I was twenty-one, my uncle tried to offer a realistic portrait of what it takes to be a successful writer:
“But one thing that won’t just happen to you, like life, is teaching yourself to write well. So whatever time you spend doing that, can stand to spend, and need to spend, all that time that seems wasted and those rare moments that seem volcanic and so sure, is the time that must be spent, otherwise you’ll never become the writer you want to become. And there’s a funny thing about that, too…You’ll never become the writer you want to become. You’ll never be satisfied, never really know if you are any good.”
If you aren’t any good, though, what’s the use of spending all that time “teaching yourself to write well”? Without talent, perseverance begins to look a lot like compulsion.
Gabriel García Márquez wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude in a furious 18-month burst. He tells of the hardships of this time in the wonderful book The Fragrance of Guava: Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez:
“You already know how much lunacy of this sort Mercedes [his wife] has had to put up with…She took charge of the situation. I’d bought a car a few months earlier so I pawned it and gave her the money. I reckoned that we could live on it for six months, but it took me a year and a half to write the book. When the money ran out she never said a word. I don’t know how she did it, but she got the butcher to give us credit for the meat, the baker for his bread, and the landlord to wait nine months for the rent.”
García Márquez had already published a few books, and yet he knew this was his make-or-break moment. “Either this book will be my break-though,” he said, “Or I’ll blow my brains out.”
Of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude went on to become one of the most famous novels of all time. But what if he had failed? He had two children at the time, a wife. How might we look at his compulsive behavior if it led not to worldwide fame, but suicide? Two children. To abandon your responsibilities as a care-giver for eighteen months! Was García Márquez selfish? Do you have to be selfish to write a masterpiece?
Children. Since adolescence, I’ve associated the writing-life with the images borne towards me from my uncle’s life. My uncle introduced me to many of his poet friends–truly genuine, loving, funny people. One thing I noticed as a teen and young adult, without ever thinking too much about it, was that many of these poets did not have children. So it seemed to me, growing up, that a life of poetry might not be compatible with parenthood. Of course, this is an egregious generalization. And, of course, people have and do not have children for any number of reasons–reasons that need not be explained to anyone. But I often truly do wonder: is the writing life compatible with parenthood?
I’m speaking specifically of a writer at the beginning of their career: the unpublished, the hopeful, the compulsive–me. Because, obviously, many successful writers have successfully raised children. No, I wonder, more specifically, of the writer I soon hope to be: the writer trying to break into the business who is also raising a child–or two, or three, or more.
For me, just now, this question of the writer-parenthood paradigm is important. My wife and I, we are trying to get pregnant. If we are blessed with a child, well, then, I will need to make more money. It’s not merely a question of my wife not being able to work. She will go back to work; she will continue to make money. That’s her preference. And, of course, I will spend time at home with my child, feasibly writing. No, it’s a question of the way I feel about my role. I want to provide for my wife and my child. I want to contribute meaningfully to our financial situation in a way that will enable us to move out of our apartment, buy a house, perhaps buy a second car–basically ease the burden that is now primarily on my wife, a successful lawyer. I am frantically searching for teaching jobs. I am frantically applying to writing fellowships. I am frantically trying to finish my third rewrite of my novel.
All of this strikes me as productive.
On most days, too, the time I spend writing strikes me as worthwhile and productive.
But at what point in the near future will the time I spend writing begin to compromise my ability to meet my responsibilities as a husband, a father? How long can I continue to spend my time writing (without making money) before the ballooning financial responsibilities of adulthood swallow more and more of my time–the time I had previously set aside for writing? It seems I’m confronting a make-or-break moment.
Obviously the people who become successful writers are the ones who do it. Perseverance, finally, is more important than talent. You can’t just write when inspiration puts your head in the furnace. And the more you write, the more you discover: inspiration comes later in the process. You have to work through the soot. You have to spend weeks looking into the twilight just to see the twinkle in the first star. Writers do this. Writers write, frantically.
And yet, when you make no money, this frantic activity seems a bit suspicious, doesn’t it?
I do not believe I have an addiction. But really, what is the difference between addiction and perseverance? What is the difference between Gabriel García Márquez writing furiously for 18 months, and, say the terrible “American Idol” contestant singing furiously for 18 months? Talent, obviously. Talent is important too. How do you know if you got any? At what point do you decide that you’ve tried hard enough–that you’re just not talented enough, that your wife, and your potential child, need you more than you need your writing?
I’ve found the best thing to do is to not think about these things. The best thing to do is to simply write. And that’s not hard for me: I’m addicted.