We all want to be recognized: it’s right there in the third tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in the rectangle labeled “belonging.”
But what’s it like to be a writer who wants readers? The question might as well be, what’s it like to be a writer? Because although some writers want to be read (and liked) more than others, I’ve never met one who’s ambivalent about it.
Anyone who tells you it’s all about the writing and that they don’t care about getting published is lying. The act of writing can be joyful and scintillating, yes, but mostly it’s a whole lot of hard, hard work. In the end, you hope for, and even expect, some kind of reward. You don’t get pregnant just to look bloated and cumbersome for nine months — you want that baby.
When you’re a writer, you spend lots of time reading other writers’ work and comparing it to your own. You know it’s not a good idea and you don’t actually mean to, but you do it anyway. After you’ve read a particularly amazing piece of writing by someone else, you go down to the kitchen and eat a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia.
You use every spare millisecond between tasks at your day job to call up old Word files on your computer desktop and go over them yet again, line by line, trying to improve them ever so slightly, to a point where you’re comfortable submitting them. Then, when you come home from Working For The Man, you sit with your spouse on the couch with your laptop open, pretending to be looking at Facebook or YouTube like he is, but you’re actually massaging an essay about the people who live in an Alzheimer’s care center you visit every week, a piece you thought you might send to Parabola magazine or The New Yorker. You’re checking the thesaurus to see if there’s a better word you can put in place of “crumpled” to describe one woman’s face when she looked up at you, utterly helpless and pleading. You want to share that experience with the world because it was so achingly real.
You keep Post-It notes and a chewed-up pencil from an old Yahtzee game in the little zippered pocket in the back of your running tights in case a Good Idea comes to you, because one sometimes does, and if you’re ill-equipped you have to duck into the 7-11 at 6 a.m. to beg the bleary-eyed guy behind the counter for a pen and a scrap of paper because you know you’ll forget the Good Idea by the time you get home if you don’t write it down.
You obsess in the middle of the night about never, ever getting published and that maybe you’ll have to live in an RV down by the river when you retire with your little Social Security check, your stinky yellow Lab and a bottle of cheap red wine because your man will surely have left you by then after having had it up to here with hearing about how your writing is no good.
Every writer I know wants to publish a book yesterday. Writers hate waiting; hate having to make changes and suffer through major edits once they’ve put the final period on the very last sentence of their draft, or so they thought. They mostly successfully hide their foot-tapping insolence, but sometimes it creeps out during conversations about who’s-writing-what and who’s-getting-published-where, and it isn’t pretty. It is about chronic insecurity and an overactive ego, but it’s also about so much more — making up for the times in childhood when someone beat you to the top of the monkey bars at the playground, or when that guy dumped you your sophomore year in high school just because he could get more action from that slutty cheerleader with Marcia Brady hair and a perfect ass.
Years later, when you’ve worshiped a good long while at the altar of attempting to write the perfect piece and you start to think you’ve maybe got the chops to enjoy a little success, it’s hard not to curve slightly to the left or right, listing toward deranged and then, pendulum-like, back toward weepy and pathetic as you continue to trudge down the forked path of wanting your writing to appear somewhere cool.
Life as a writer is up and down like that. One minute you’re Sally Field in Norma Rae, flushed, triumphant, oddly glamorous in your apron and blue jeans, standing on that table in the textile factory. The next you’re Meg in Family Guy, plain, geeky, cartoonish, reviled by everyone, even your imbecilic father, who farts in your face and thinks it’s funny.
It feels bad, it feels good; it’s living hell, then it’s heaven. And you tell yourself, in your worst moments, that it’s all rigged and highly unfair, that all the really terrible children’s authors who can barely string three coherent sentences together only get published because they’re sleeping with someone connected.
You watch others get their material into circulation, maybe even get their novel published by a small local press and appear in public at readings and book signings while you languish in your pajama bottoms in a cold, cramped attic office: Oliver Twist with an internet connection. Or you see someone else’s fancy book jacket staring out at you from the street, in the window of a cute little bookstore in the middle of an adorable Bohemian shopping area.
You’re not proud of it, but you start to develop a mild hatred for the people who review the masterpieces you submit, who are probably snickering, possibly even laughing with their heads thrown back as they go over your work, slapping their foreheads like in that old TV commercial — Should Have Had A V-8 — and then going outside for long, self-righteous smoke breaks. There’s just no chance at all you’ll ever get your writing out there, you snivel, getting that pity party started with repeating tracks of “Free Bird,” a box of tissues and maybe another pint of ice cream.
You think about the squared-away people who say things like “God is in control” while nodding their heads, Yoda-like, feeling quite sincerely sorry about your lack of fealty in the nature and direction of life. But you know better. You know those people are ignorant and naïve, even though you sometimes send up urgent anxious prayers, like feeble smoke signals to the Great Scribe of the Universe, mostly after you’ve submitted a few more queries to Rolling Stone or Guideposts and you want Him or Her to pave the way for your writing to get noticed.
Then, as the children’s song goes, you start all over again.
That’s what it’s like to be a writer 99 percent of the time. The other one percent of the time it’s like when you’re lying in bed in your lover’s arms after having made deliriously wonderful, sweaty love, and feelings of awe and deep contentment wash over you, as if you’ve witnessed the Transfiguration. And you’re not even mad at him for already being asleep, not one little bit, because of all that crazy gratitude.
But that’s just me. I do think most writers live for those 1 percent times, even when they’re cussing like mad while filing away their latest rejection letter, because they’re bound to their writing inextricably, as a mother and her child are, so they sit down again each morning, open up the blank page, take a breath, and begin.