Thursday, August 23, 2018

Should She Write a Novel?

Fair enough. A woman without a life, working as a graphic designer, writes to Ask Polly because she is tempted to quit her job . You see she wants to work full time on her novel. Who doesn't?

Strictly speaking, she is not a novelist, but she has been working on a piece of young adult fiction in her spare time. It makes sense that she would write to Polly, who earns a living writing about things she knows very little about. Give some credit to Polly: she has limited writing talent and no talent for giving advice. She has parlayed it into a serious writing gig at an important magazine. It makes you think that there's something seriously wrong with America.

When we read the aspiring writer’s letter, we are struck by the fact that we know nothing about her life. How old is she? Does she have friends or family outside of work? If she can spend her evenings working on her book, she probably does not have many responsibilities or obligations to others. We do not know whether she is young or middle aged. We do not know how she will get by without working. Again, we know nothing of her circumstances, so we are flying blind.

It doesn’t bother Polly who, as is her wont, drones on about herself and offers yet another pile of bad advice.

Are you ready to read the letter? Well, ready or not, here it is:

Recently, after years of being afraid to confront this reality, I accepted that I want to be a writer. Specifically, a YA novelist. I work full-time as a designer, but I’ve been diligently working on my manuscript every night for at least three months now, and am about 25 to 30 percent done.

I’m happy to keep working in this way while maintaining a full-time job. The problem is, I hate my full-time job. It is very stable and pays the bills and, weirdly, has growth opportunities. But it bores me, and I feel intellectually and emotionally isolated from my co-workers, even though they are genuinely nice people. Basically, it’s a really bad fit for me, but it’s not toxic enough to make leaving a no-brainer, which is why I’ve been there for almost four years.

So why not just find a new full-time job? Unless I want a job doing the exact kind of design I do now (which, again, bores and demoralizes me), I’ll need to put work into updating my portfolio. Even if I do want to get a similar job, just at a different company, the process of networking, applying, and interviewing is also time-consuming. And since I do work full-time, I have a limited amount of free time in my off hours, and that’s time I’d really rather spend writing.

And yet … the chance of becoming a published writer (especially one whose books actually sell) is so low. Plus, the gestation period for a manuscript is so long. You have to put in a lot of time and effort before you can find out whether you’ll fail or not. It almost feels like the ROI on the time spent trying to get another design job might be higher than trying to get a novel published. And yes, that’s despite the fact that design is already a creative/competitive field.

And yet … the thought of staying at this job for five, six, or more years while I finish my manuscript (or start and finish a second one if this first one is awful) is horrifying to me. I’m terrified of becoming one of those people who never succeed with their art, so all they’re left with is the day job they hate. But I’m afraid to just quit and focus on writing, because I’m also terrified of being one of those people who are too stressed about their finances to make good art.

On top of that, I’ve cycled through a lot of “dreams” by this point. Becoming a designer was already technically a career change for me (I was an English major in college), and I’ve since had phases when I became really excited about (and actually worked pretty hard in my off-hours toward) becoming a greeting-card-business owner, illustrator, or surface designer.

The reason I think writing might be the “real” dream is that I’ve wanted to be a writer since long before I even thought I could be a designer or any of those variations of the job. I also realized that even if I became, say, a super-successful surface designer, there would always be a part of me that would still want to write a novel. That’s what made me think, Well, why don’t I just do it now?

But I don’t know. Am I just kidding myself? Is there a smart way to proceed that I just can’t see?

How Should I Spend My Time?

Obviously, someone who asks a newspaper columnist how she should spend her time does not inspire confidence. HSISMT knows perfectly well that the odds are stacked against her. She might get lucky but she might not. Even Polly understands this side of the publishing industry.

Yet, neither HSISMT nor Polly asks the salient question, the most basic and fundamental question, which is: does she have any talent? If she doesn’t have the talent, she should not waste her time. If she has talent as a graphic designer she might work on expanding her skills in that field. One suspects that her mind is so addled with visions of writerly glory that she slacks off at work.

HSISMT does not say if anyone has ever read her writing. She does not say what kind of feedback she has received. She does not say whether she has ever tried publishing any of it before. Her only frame of reference is that she wants to do it and has always wanted to do it. If you have no talent and a burning desire you are going to burn yourself out… later, not sooner.

Fair enough, you have already figured out that we can get a sense of this woman’s writing ability by reading her letter. Isn’t that why she wrote to a magazine columnist, to see her words in print? If you want my opinion, very little about the letter shows great writing talent. Sorry to have to say it, but Polly ignores the issue… obviously, that makes it important.

One understands the difficulty of working full time in an office. One understands the difficulty of writing in the evening after a long day at work. She can address that problem by writing early in the morning, before work. A little reorganization might help.

The second point, which Polly does not seem to understand, is that writing is not a high; it is not a trip; it is not like taking drugs. It is work. It is very hard work. It requires serious discipline and organization. It is more about rewriting and editing than it is about writing. And rereading early drafts is one of life’s most disagreeable experiences. Failing to tell HSISMT about the hard work and discipline again disqualifies Polly from giving serious advice.

Other authors, serious authors, talk about how writing is a torture. Polly does not understand. She wants you to savor the experience… which makes it feel more like a feast than the painful process it is.

She says:

Authors talk about what torture it is to write, to finish a book, to get revisions. And it can be torture! But it’s a luxury to write, a luxury you have to train yourself to savor. There’s no fucking reason to do it if you can’t savor it.

For the record the first sentence, beginning “Authors talk about what torture it is to write….” is junk writing.

Polly recommends that the woman withdraw from the world into a “giddy bubble” of her own creation, where she becomes so full of herself that she gets off on her own self-indulgent self-importance. Polly mumbles something about becoming a drunk, stoned ballerina... without recognizing that being a ballerina is very hard and often painful work. If you are drunk and/or stoned, you are not going to be much of a ballerina... except perhaps in your own mind.

In Polly’s words:

Instead of investing in the non-glory of a future publication date, I want to strongly recommend that you learn to create a giddy bubble, a Bizarro world, in which you are a fucking creative genius whether or not you have an impressive body of work to your credit. Each day, celebrate your most minor word-crafting victories; cheer on your most constipated, tedious paragraphs; and use the writing process to enjoy your freaky gray matter until every single writing session emulates the feeling of being a drunk, stoned, young, gorgeous ballerina living on Mars. That is the point, the purpose, the peak: to enjoy the world you inhabit when you write. You take foolish leaps, you meander, you invite edits, you revisit your own words lovingly but patiently. You’re smug and grandiose and insufferable? Of course! That’s the goal, dummies! If you’re living right, you find yourself chuckling amiably at your own beauty, your grace, your effortless pirouettes of boozy wordsmithery. “Life as a ballerina on motherfucking Mars is good,” you tell yourself. And in that moment, it is. That’s what matters.

Read it again: “chuckling amiably at your own beauty,your grace, your effortless pirouettes of boozy wordsmithing.” It’s what a talentless writer, one who has no critical distance on her writing, would throw into a column. Polly adds a few obscenities to show how cool she is, but, it’s bad writing. Period.


Sum Ting Wong said...

What this person needs to do is take some psychological testing to reveal her true interests and aptitudes. When she finds out where her true interests and aptitudes intersect, then she needs to browse the Dictionary of Occupational Titles to find the jobs she is interested in and good at. Problem solved, unless she is a "loss and longing" type who can't be content with anything.

Sam L. said...

HSISMT should be told about It's a blog by a number of writers on how to write, and how to get on with your life while writing. I doubt Polly has ever heard of it.

Sam L. said...

It might be a good idea for her to find a writing group, where others could tell her their tales of woe and successes, and give advice.

trigger warning said...

Another victim of "What Color is Your Parachute?", the "most popular job-hunting book in the world."

"The best parts of this world were not fashioned by those who were 'realistic.' They were fashioned by those who dared to look hard at their wishes and then gave them horses to ride.”
--- Bolles

Anonymous said...

Screaming obscenities won’t do it, she needs to be issued the official embossed card affirming her creative license. Violators are fined for novel writing without a permit.


Jim Sweeney said...

As an avid reader, I take exception to the Polly columns as boring to say the least. Please avoid or minimize.

Jim Sweeney

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree... and that is why I usually limit myself to the letters... ignoring the rest. On this occasion I took the liberty of quoting her... because the issue was a writing career... makes more sense to quote writers writing if you want to evaluate the advice.

David Foster said...

Somehow, Wallace Stevens managed to become a major American poet while holding down a job as Vice President at the Hartford Insurance Company...a job which required him to travel a great deal.

I believe there are many other examples of people who managed to combine a literary career with a day job.

Anonymous said...

Speaking from the peanut gallery, I enjoy the deconstruction of the advice from the Polly columns.


Dean Gil Barry said...

The world of Polly's mind and that of this "budding writer," are rather boring. Fun to read about, however. Drunk, stoned ballerina on Mars? What sophomoric imagery. I suggest "budding" self publish, where she will surely end up with 5,000 copies of unsold books sitting in her garage or spare room.