Most of us discover by our twenties that others’ professions are not remotely as we imagine. Film actors, no matter how successful, spend a lot of time waiting around. Musicians need to practice constantly. Lawyers learn to look fascinated while hearing about other people’s problems.
And writers? Civilians have absolutely no idea what it’s like. If they did, they’d never wish they were writers, even for a day. (Anyway, the urge is usually to be a published author, not to spend all day writing. Big difference.)
I remember interviewing Paul Theroux when I was twenty-five. He was the first superb professional writer I’d ever met who wasn’t in my immediate family. Because I asked, he showed me the first and second drafts of The Mosquito Coast, handwritten in ink, filling two enormous ledgers. He said lightly, “If you showed this to most people, they’d shit.”
He was right, of course, but it wasn’t just the quantity of hard manual labor involved, but the commitment behind it, the scraping away of self for every inch of material. This excoriation is the aspect that’s hardest to describe; it’s as if you were determined to build a road with the gunk you sponge out of the kitchen sink at the end of every day. And the road has to look beautiful, too, or you won’t get paid.
It would be crude to mention money. As Stevenson wrote, extolling the pleasures of our profession to a young would-be writer, the wonder is not that it pays so little, but that it pays at all.
There are also the problems of living with us. Even in a digital age it’s a profession that produces a messy profusion of pesky paper. Writers tend to be distracted, too, in a most selfish way; their minds are literally (or literarily) elsewhere. This is often portrayed as romantic, but it’s annoying for everybody.
It may simply be a question of spelling. Change one letter, and “writer” becomes “waiter.” That’s much closer to the truth, since you spend so much of your time waiting—waiting for a solution to be revealed for some problem that will be irrelevant come the next draft, waiting for your agent to get back to you, waiting for some career-changing review that makes no difference. Waiting to become a successful writer. Whatever that means.
When I told one colleague what I was planning to write about this week, he said, “Be sure to explain that we get to drink all day. And don’t forget the parade of willing women.”
I almost forgot.