To Lie or Not To Lie?
A few months ago I waited on some current students from my old high school. Those of you who know me know that I went to an arts high school, and therefore spent a lot of my teenage years dancing on cafeteria tables and breaking into song in the hallways. Because of my arts education, I went into adult life feeling pretty optimistic about my future as a writer, like all the true artist needed to get along in the world was heart and stick-to-it-iveness. Worst case scenario, I’d live in a crappy apartment and subsist off beans and rice for a few years while I wrote my masterpiece. It was a time-honored tradition; hell, it would be fun!
Well, folks, the only people who think crappy apartments and a beans ‘n’ rice diet are fun are people who have only lived in nice suburban houses and had their mothers cook for them. The life of a starving artist sucks. Hard.
I hate to admit it, but I have reached a point in my so-called career where I feel the strong desire to burn everything I’ve ever written, call it quits, and go to work in advertising. At least I could afford to go on vacation. Not only is writing harder than I thought, but the rewards are slimmer. You work for years on a piece, writing, editing, re-writing, re-editing, and when it’s finished, you can’t even get your friends to read it.
It is not fun, people.
Not to mention the fact that I went into tremendous debt to hone my skills as a writer, thinking that, at the very worst, I would be able to get a job as a copy editor somewhere, or a reader of slush at some magazine. Little did I know that those jobs do not exist, and if they do, they don’t pay! And if they pay, they are in New York, where the pay is not even enough for a shitty apartment and a big bag of rice!
So. When these bright-eyed, hopeful teenagers came into the restaurant where I (still) make all of my money and asked me what it’s like to be a real writer, to really Go For It, I told them, “Look around.”
What could I have meant? They looked at each other, perplexed.
“Kids,” I told them, “Life as an artist is hard as shit. You better be damned sure that you can’t do anything else with your life, because if you think you can be happy doing any other job, that’s what you need to do.”
They didn’t say anything to me, just shrank into their over-sized suit jackets and their vintage shoes, brushed a lone tear from each of their painted faces and ate their pizza in silence.
As I walked away, I wondered if I made the right call, being honest with them. Didn’t they have a right to their youthful naivete? Wasn’t it their turn to boogie down the street with abandon, to tell themselves that they would, in time, Make It? Would I have benefited from the voice of reason telling me to think long and hard about the life I was really choosing?
Nope. Not a teeny, tiny bit. While I may have thought twice about majoring in Film in college, I would pretty much have done the same thing as I did.
For two reasons:
1) Artists don’t like being told things. They need to discover things for themselves. That’s part of what gives them the crazy life experiences that allow them to create interesting art.
2) I really can’t think of another job that would make me happy. Or, perhaps, given current circumstances, I should say that I can’t think of another job that would make me feel fulfilled the way that finishing a story does. There is nothing in the world that I want to do more, or would choose to do over writing.
I meant it when I told those kids not to go into art unless it was the only thing you could imagine doing. Because at the end of the day, it’s too hard to keep going if it’s not truly what you need to do. The people who just kind of like to write will never, ever outlast the people who need to write. And if you aren’t sure that you need to do it, then don’t waste your time and talent starving in front of a blank screen. Writing will always be there for a hobby.
As for me, I’m stuck being in love with words.