What It’s Like Being A Writer

Okay, you know how Muggles don’t get what it’s like being a wizard? And how crazy people don’t know what it’s like being sane and sane people don’t know what it’s like being crazy?

Those who are not writers do not know what it’s like to be a writer. Ask someone who is not infected with the Authorial Virus (Types A through G) what a writer does and you’ll probably get a blank stare. Then that person will noodle it and shrug and say, “He sits up there in his room with his My Little Ponies, pooping fairy tales out of his fingertips for ten minutes. Then he masturbates and talks to people on Twitter.”

Masturbate? Well, fine. Everybody’s got a lunch hour, and it doesn’t take me 60 minutes to eat a damn sandwich. Nothing wrong with exploring my own body with various textures and food products. As for Twitter? Hey, you go and mill around the water cooler like a bunch of thirsty water bison, and I go and mill around Twitter like a digital version of the same.

But I do not defecate fairy tales out of my fingertips. If only the act of writing was quite so simple as all that.

(And, by the way, leave my ponies out of it. They didn’t do anything to you.)

Point being, it’s time to take this big callused toe of mine and drag it across the sand. There, then, is the line. On this side is me, the penmonkey. On that side is you, the… I dunno. Pen-muggle. Shut up.

What I’m trying to say is, this is what it means to be a writer. Got people in your life who just don’t grok the trials and tribulations of the everyday word-chucker? Show them this.

I Swear On The Life Of Word Jesus, It’s Actually Work

This one sucks because you know what? I get it. I’ve tried explaining to people what I do, and at no point does it sound like work. “Uhh, well, I wake up at 6AM and I get my coffee and then I get in front of the computer and I… make stuff up… and then I try to convince people to buy the things I just… made up.” It sounds like the world’s biggest scam and explains why so many people want to be writers.

I might as well have said, “I sit out in a sunlit meadow and play Candyland with a bunch of puppies.”

Let’s just clear this one up right now:

Writing is work. It’s not back-breaking labor, no — though, by now I probably do have scoliosis (and a Deep-Vein Thrombosis whose clot-bullet will probably detonate in my brain) — but it is mind-breaking just the same. I can sit here for hours metaphorically head-butting the computer monitor until this story — or article, or blog-post, or sex-toy instruction manual — bleeds out across the screen. And then I have to keep fucking with it, keep hacking it apart and juicing my skull-meats until it all makes sense. Everything else is emails and spreadsheets and outlines and porn and shame and homelessness.

Am I doing work on par with fire fighters or soldiers? Fuuuuu-huuuu-huuuck no. But neither are you, Mister Cubicle Monkey. Or you, Target clerk. So. You know. Hush up.

All I’m saying is, no, I don’t need a “real job” because I already have one.

I Promise You, We’re Actually Accomplishing Something

Someone might ask, “Oh, what do you write?”

So, you tell them.

“Can I read it somewhere?”

You tell them, no, you can’t. It hasn’t sold yet. Or it’s in production. Or it’s headed toward publication. Or you have an agent but no publication. Or it’ll post to the web in three months. Or it’ll hit shelves in a year.

Or, or, or.

And then you get that look. The nod. The polite smile.

What they’re saying is:

“You go up into your room, you hide yourself away for hours every day, hunkering down over your computer until your spine crackles and your fingers buckle from carpal tunnel, and you stare at that screen and write word after word after word, and you have… nothing to show for it? Nothing at all?”

Well. Uhh. Sorta.

Just the same, it makes us want to kick you in the snack drawer.

The Two Reactions

I tell someone I’m a writer, I get one of the following two reactions. Ready? Here goes.

Number One: “Oh. A writer. Uh-huh. Well, that’s great.” They blink and offer a kind of dismissive or incredulous smile, as if I just told them I was a cowboy or a space marine. Occasionally there exists a follow-up question. “So, you write, like, what? Books?” And that word — books — is enunciated as if it’s a mythical creature, like they’re asking me if I spend all day tracking Bigfoot by his scat patterns. Another follow-up question is, “Like Stephen King?” (Or, insert some other famous writer — possibly the only writer this person has ever heard of.) Yes. Just like Stephen King. I write horror novels about Maine and sometimes stop to roll around in big piles of cash.

Subtext to this is: That’s precious. A writer! Adorable. So, what’s your real job, again? Some thick-headed dick-mops actually possess enough gall to ask that question. “Yeah, but what do you do for money?”

Number Two: “OH NO WAY A WRITER?” Their eyes light up. Their mouth slackens. They act like they’re encountering… I dunno, a celebrity, or someone who broke through the fence and now runs free with the other ponies. “It must be so great,” they might say, as if it’s really awesome not being sure where your money will come from next or how you’re going to pay for that appendectomy you’ve technically needed for the last four years.

That one has some follow-ups, too. First, again, “Oh, like Stephen King?”

Second is, “OMG I’M A WRITER TOO.” They almost never are. My neighbor hit me with that one when we lived at our last house. Regaling me of tales of her One Novel that she never actually finished because She Has To Wait For Just The Right Mood. “My kids always know when inspiration has struck because I have to pull over to the side of the road and get in the zone and just start writing.” Yeah, because that’s how it works. I pay my mortgage with one unfinished novel. Turns out, you can bank inspiration and collect interest. That’s how I’m going to pay for my appendectomy! With the sweet wampum of inspirado.

Do any other careers earn this reaction? “OMG I’M AN ACCOUNTANT TOO. I sit at home and budget out how much money I have for weed and Doritos. And when inspiration strikes, I balance my checkbook.”

“OMG I’M A CHEF TOO, I just microwaved a can of Beefaroni.”

“OMG I’M AN ASTRONAUT TOO I totally just climbed a tree and looked at the moon.”

Don’t get me wrong, I like the second reaction over the first, but both are dismissive and misinformed.

Know this, non-writers: no, we’re not special, but we’re also not big dough-brained children, either. Put us somewhere in the middle between “jobless trilobite” and “second coming of Stephen King.”

We Try Very Hard To Be Normal

When writers dwell in their element — usually meaning with other writers or other creative-types — you can sense it. The freak flag flies up the pole. The whiskey comes out. The inappropriate jokes fly.

We laugh. We cry. We commiserate.

But when we’re amongst the, ehhh, ahem, pen-muggles, sometimes it feels like walking on unsteady ground. Like we’re going to be found out. Like eventually they’re going to snap their fingers and say, “Ahh, right, right. You just sit around in your underwear and tell stories to yourself, don’t you? I get it now.” Because that’s the vibe you get from some people. From family, from acquaintances, from those nearby.

A writer lives there,” they may say in hushed whisper.

I’ve had this with other neighbors. You meet them for the first time, they say, “Oh, I sell cars, what do you do?” And you tell them. And the inevitable question is, “Oh, what do you write?” And the answer is, well, uhh, I write about vampires and zombies and goblins and psychic girls and corn-punks and monkey sex and I have a blog where I curse a lot and I also write games and books and…

By that point, they’re probably pulling their children closer. Hugging them to their hip. Just in case I decide to go all vampire-zombie-goblin on them. Just in case I’m some kind of serial killer.

And I want to say I’m not, but it’d be a half-hearted denial. After all, in my mind and on the page I’m constantly thinking of ways to torment and eventually execute characters. Which leads to…

Weird Shit Goes Through Our Head In A Swiftly-Moving, Never-Stopping Stream

I am ever lost in the fog of my own imagination. I don’t mean to suggest that this is what it takes to be a writer — after all, that fog of imagination is about as tangible and real as a pegasus fart. Just the same, I remain lost there for six minutes out of every ten, the grinder constantly turning, the gear-teeth chewing my mind-meat into usable ground brain-beef.

I need you to know that, non-writer, so when you ask me a question — “Would you like fries with that? Do you want us to change your brake pads? Did you take out the trash? Did you realize that the house is presently on fire?” — it explains the unfocused gaze, the faint moving of the lips where no sound comes out, the chewing of the inner cheek. It’s not just me being an idiot. I’m merely thinking of how to properly execute an invasion of New York City from the Hollow Earth, or trying to imagine the best way for a character to escape an undying serial killer, or pondering what happens when true love turns to bitter rage on a distant Saturnian mining colony.

It’s why my response to your question is usually a mumbled, “Wuzza?”

This is why writers must try very hard to live strong external lives.

Otherwise, we’d turtle inward, living only the myriad lives inside our own heads.

Here, Then, Is Your Soapbox

Sound off, authorial types. Let’s say you’re talking to a non-writer. What do you want them to know about being you? About being a writer with all your crazy writer ways? Scream it so the cheap seats can hear.

* * *

Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?

Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY

$4.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING

$0.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

165 comments

  • Okay, I’m not a real writer. I’m an aspiring penmonkey, but I spend most of my freetime writing. I’m still a high school student, so I can’t spend all my time doing that.

    The worst reaction is “Hey, can I read what you’re writing?” FUCK NO!!! You can wait until I’m done and if it gets published, which there is a remote chance of that, then you can pay for it just like everyone else.

    And people here think it’s a hobby. Heh, tell me that when I’m clicking away on the computer at 4 oclock in the morning. Tell me it’s a hobby then. Heh.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Conversation with a friend

    Friend: I think you should write my story because I’ve lived a very interesting life and a lot of things have happened to me that your readers could learn from.
    Me: I don’t write biographies.
    Friend: Still. Think about it, because we could make millions on my story. All we have to do is sit down and I’ll tell you all about my life, you make that it into a book and sell it to publishers. We can share the money 5//50.
    Me: I don’t write biographies.

  • Laughs all around. I was an attorney. Then I became very ill, i think largely because the stress of it all. I lost my practice, lost my license, everything. Now I’m living in my parent’s basement recovering.

    People ask me, “So when are you going to go back to practicing law?”

    To which I reply, “I probably won’t. It nearly killed me last time. I think I’ll try my hand at writing. I do card games and science fiction.”

    Fuckin’ crickets. Everytime.

  • This was awesome. Being a high school student, I don’t always have as much time as I’d like to dedicate to my writing, but for me it’s not so much the constant nagging about what I write because in some ways I just don’t like to tell people. Even after nearly six years, I know I’m not the greatest, and it seems that when I tell people, they either give me a strange look or ask to read my works. Since the only solid copies I have are the rough drafts (I write tidbits in notebooks and type them whn I’m done), they either get the messy notebooks that are completely out of order or a simple no. I love this though because several people have begun trying to talk me into writing nonsense, and it is quite annoying, absolutely.

  • I love the way you put this. It was beautifully written. And I can understand where you are coming from. Though I may only be 14, I too consider myself a writer. What do I write? Poetry. I have no explanations for my writings. They are simply creations of my insanity. Ive written about Alice destroying Wonderland and had to tell my boyfriend,(who knows about my insanity) that it was about the ending of childhood so he wouldnt continually question me about it. I love the way this describes a writer, I do aspire to be a pen-monkey when I “grow up”. I believe you have a new fan my dear sir.

  • If you’re not published yet, you SHOULD be, coz your writing is damn entertaining! Reminds me a bit of The Oatmeal comics but without the pictures. Er. Yeh. Anyway, it was interesting for a pen-muggle like me, to hear what it’s like from the pen-monkey angle, so thank you for sharing your artfully ariculated thoughts on the subject 🙂

  • You’re a writer if you enjoy writing. Whether you write once a month when you get a break from work or college classwork, or write for ten hours a day, writers are writers, just in varying degrees.

  • Good article. 2.5 years ago I commented on one of your posts (DON’T YOU REMEMBER, CHUCK?!) saying that FAKKIT, I’ll go full-time freelance.

    For 2.5+ years I’ve managed to support myself and my family via writing alone (first ghostwriting shit like you wouldn’t believe, then ads & video games).

    On March 8, after asking for the lowest-responsibility job with a regular paycheck like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, I’m going to become a Customer Support agent … and write whatever the fuck I want. It’s a job. Yes. It can make money, yes. It makes good / relatively stable money if you’re prolific & with income easier to maintain the older (“more experienced”) you get.

    But fuck that, man.

    Answering phone calls is where it’s at.

    See you in space.

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