Writing literature and having a writing career are entirely separate things. A writer is an artist whose work may be informed or influenced, but never overdetermined, by the pressures of making money, publishing, and building an audience—that’s a writing career. Writing is pointless if you don’t get to write what you want, even if it’s obscure, difficult, or non-lucrative. But there’s also no reason to assume you’re not clever enough to make a career out of it too.
Jane says: Tony Tulathimutte offers sage advice to writers. The pearls (in my humble opinion): always get paid and only social media if you want to. As he mentions in the essay’s close, I’m working different paths—equal parts traditional and stealth, hoping to build a sustainable life freelancing. Fingers crossed, fingers crossed, fingers crossed.
I worry that I have not done enough research. I worry that I’m spending too much time researching. I worry that people will think it’s not true to life. I worry that it’s too true to life and thus boring. I worry that there’s not enough plot. I worry that there’s not enough lyricism. I worry that there’s not enough hours in the day in the week month year life for me to ever finish it.
I slept in the center of my room on a mattress on the floor, as did my younger brother. I would sleep with the window open in the summer, while friends slept in cool, three-story homes on the better side of town. Our dinner was funded by food stamps; we washed the plates immediately lest the roaches come. The memories are of my little brother’s bedroom. This room was the saddest of all. It didn’t have a window, and it was always dark, always filled with the sound of him playing by himself, a static television. I think now of the little pale boy, alone after school, sitting on his broken bed on the floor. How he didn’t know of the lack. How my mother took the living room couch as her bedroom. And the television with the aluminum foil.
Jane says: Like Lisa Marie Basile, I went into extreme debt (school, school and school) because I wanted to put distance between me and where I’m from. Separately, my parents have given me the “just-don’t-be-like-me” talks, and I can’t write a simple sentence about my childhood. When I remember, pain rushes to the surface, but when I sift, there is beauty too. (Or I choose to see beauty.) For a while, I fell asleep to the sound of the ocean and, later, trains. I know “I’m a poor girl at heart” because any time I think of the things that I have now—love, safety, health insurance, some writing time—it’s hard to want, but I’m always working towards more. God, do I work. Because of where I’m from, I can’t rest. There is so much to say, too many people like me out there with pain like mine, and time is precious; time is privilege. In fact, I’m so happy I keep thinking someone is going to steal all that is good from me because where I’m from not a lot of dreams come true. I keep splashing my face with cold water and, still, this is my life. Maybe one day I will share my story. Thank you, Lisa Marie Basile, for sharing yours.
“We keep bringing others through till we fill up this room.” —William Johnson
“We ought to be able to create classroom[s] and school libraries where a student can pick up a book and see the food that she eats, hear the sound of her family, follow her stories. That isn’t achieved by just slapping the name ‘Maria’ on a character.” —Meg Medina
“How many stories have I not heard because this editor was in charge?” —Mira Jacob
“Part of what kept me in the publishing industry was—god damn it—I have my foot in the door. When my job goes they are not going to give it to another black girl. There goes a black woman’s shot at changing something.” —Megan Reid
“It takes a lot for a writer of color to be recognized, and then when they are recognized, every single person expects them to be the solution to their diversity problems.” —Angela Flournoy
“Growing up in the largest housing projects in the United States, Queensbridge, it affects everything I do, how I read.” —Linda Duggins
“I asked, ‘If I had worked at a magazine like Newsweek would you propose I do an internship?’ He said that’s a good question, and I said that’s a bad answer, and I walked out of his office.” —Okey Ndibe
“People always say, ‘good work rises’—that’s bullshit.” —Elissa Schappell
“Literature is a powerful thing, especially in the hands of a child. If you ask the majority of readers when they fell in love with reading, most of them will say, when they were children. And they will remember the book or the author that changed their lives.” —Shelley Diaz
Jane says: This article hijacked my morning, and I have never been so excited to have something stolen from me because what I was given back—immeasurable. So much of my private pain was spoken, and eased, reading these fifty experiences. I rolled out of bed and wrote. And wrote. And wrote. You’re damn right, Syreeta McFadden; as you said, we are out here, doing everything we can:
I’d like affirmative action the fuck out of that space. I’d readjust salaries for these folks. Solicit interns outside of the usual places. Train them in the culture of what a literary citizen should look like. Make them listen to Kanye. Get the United Colors of Benetton in that bitch. Empower people of color open their own bookstores. Create a literary agency. Buy a pop culture media outlet. I know a couple of people who are doing that but they need capital. I’d give it to them—a fund for affirmation. Seed money for people who are already doing that work. That’s the thing, right? We’ve been out here working.
[P]oor kids don’t usually get to be tortured artists—there is no realistic opportunity to do so. I found my first job at 14 so I could help my single mother pay the power bill. I babysat my little brothers because child care was unaffordable. I worked two jobs while taking out as many student loans as I could so that I could maybe, just maybe, get a degree that would move me up the food chain just enough so that life might not be a permanent struggle.
Jane says: Yas! As a thirty-something woman with a BA and an MFA, this essay gets me. As McKay stated, “That first degree I got while working and digging myself into debt didn’t exactly move me up the food chain as much as I had hoped.” Some days I flirt with the idea of a third degree, then I quake the thought away and return to hustling. But going back to school is a very real back-up plan tucked in my dress pocket so that maybe, one day, I can pay for piano or ukulele or hula lessons.
In undergrad, I remember choosing between attending my Art History night class at CC or picking up a waitressing shift to pay the rent for my subsidized apartment. Now, I pay my bills then write, minus random chunks of minutes. (Note: Writing is not something I dabble in; I write to breathe and hope, some day, to make art all day, every day.) Just the fact that I get to pay my bills and write, even if I am only typing what color the sky is and something I overheard in the bathroom for a half-hour a day and singing No to all of the things that I want on Sephora.com, makes me feel rich. You can take the kid out of the last tax bracket, but the memories.
Btw, what human says “various etceteras”with a stone face?
The thing is—one-day-at-a-time is the most painful way for active non-accomplishment to happen. It’s the psychological equivalent of death by a thousand cuts. A painter I knew told me once that she’d reached a point when she said goodbye to painting, much the same way Junot Díaz considered doing—she said it was the kindest, most generous thing she’d ever done for herself.
Jane says: I found this article when I truly needed it: wallowing in the ugly depths of a writerly “pit of despair.” My former colleagues and forever friends are publishing, publishing, publishing, while I rust at a day job and toil away at my novel, wondering if I will ever finish.
Actively working on the slow story since 2008, I have taken a sanity break here, a sanity break there, and worked on another project for eighteen months. Nevertheless, this novel has always squatted in the forefront of my mind. Yes, Susanna Daniel, I “wake in the night, [my heart] racing, unable to feel anything but the fear and frustration and disappointment of the fact that [I] haven’t finished anything in a month.”
Knowing that others are laboring in the same painful way helps. And you’re right, writing is “not nearly as hard … as not writing.” Dear writers, what keeps you returning to the desk?
Unless it’s to support someone I know or explicitly recommended, I no longer read white men. It’s not to make a political statement so much as I’m tired of seeing the world through their eyes. If you asked me to name my literary influences, it would probably take an hour before a white man appeared.
Jane says: Same. Same. Same. A friend texted me about Perkins’s article at the exact moment I liked it on Twitter. While I appreciate Claire Vaye Watkins’s honesty in “On Pandering,” a quasi confession, I felt alienated by the piece. For a female POC who has always been searching for a connection through reading, writing for the literary gatekeepers is treading cold water. Perkins is so on point when she writes, “Watkins demands we create our own canons instead of trying to find our place in that built by old white men in ivy league towers. I’ve already done that.” I have, too. I have found Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, Sherman Alexie, Joy Harjo, Sylvia Watanabe, Lee Cataluna, Nelinia Cabiles, Sally-Jo Keala-o-Anuenue Bowman, Kristiana Kahakauwila, Nora Okja Keller and fallen in love with each of them, sating certain pains, but there is still more to say. Thankfully, they have cracked the door for me, you and others.
During the Q&A someone asks what Toby would do if he couldn’t be a writer.
A long, perplexed pause.
“I would be very sad,” he finally says.
The room makes a sound that means “Us too.”
Jane says: George Saunders’s timeline displays the slow, determined learning that happens in the foundational years of writing, which for Saunders stretches from 1986 to 2000. This breakdown intrigues me, especially that six-year gap between his good story and first book, and what that says about community, solitude, discipline. Tobias Wolff’s generosity and his insistence on not losing “the magic” is magical. But every time I think about this article sadness snakes in: what happens to Paula, the writer? where are the POC?
My most aching and enduring losses have not been with boyfriends but instead the fading, fizzling, or harsh breaks with women. But only recently did I confront the paucity of vocabulary available to someone who mourns a broken friendship. Perhaps the issue is not so much lack but a stranglehold on certain words. We can have a friend crush, be totally in love with a new friend, love our friends dearly. But that in love-ness and that love do not seem to hold the weight, in language or otherwise, that they might in a romantic or sexual relationship. Certainly, we don’t speak much of the heartbreak of losing a friend, and there is much less talk of surviving a friend break-up than a romantic one.
What writing asks of us is the opposite of what being in the American culture asks of us. You’re supposed to have a five-year plan. Young people now are so cautious. Oh, we can’t get married until we have a house. Oh, we can’t have a baby until we have 20 grand in the bank. These crazy, careful people! You know, look: Life is short if you live a hundred years. Better to die naked and reckless and with passion—and not be afraid to fuck up and fail.
Jane says: A lesson on craft becomes a lesson on life.