January 26th, 2011 / 11:59 am

Occupation: Writer & the Myth of the Writer: Two Semi-Related Ideas Smashed into One Post

Thinking over Andrew’s post about his experience at New School’s MFA, I’ve been considering why I decided to become a writer.

Yesterday, for no reason at all, I remembered this conversation I had with a high school friend seven years ago, right before I started my MFA. He was on break from university (Columbia). We texted back and forth about meeting for a coffee. He said something ridiculous like: I can’t meet on Thursday until after 10 because I have to watch Grey’s Anatomy. When we finally did meet up, he told me something ridiculous like: I just love Grey’s Anatomy so much I’m going Pre-Med so I can have that experience. (And what’s not to want: beautiful doctors sexing each other up all day long and periodically doing some crazy cool, ground-breaking surgeries. I’m sold. Sign me up.)

I say it’s ridiculous, but how ridiculous is it? Why did you start writing? Why do any of us choose our occupations? How much of it has to do with popular media portrayals of certain occupations? (Yes, I realize this is a privileged position. I had a choice. Some people don’t have that choice. I don’t think this undermines my point though.)

I decided to become a writer because when I was eighteen, my college roommate was a poet and all the boys were crazy for her. Turns out they followed her around because she’s gorgeous, but lordy, I was convinced that if I became a writer, like her, I’d have boys trailing me too.

Well, that didn’t really happen. The boys, I mean. But the writing stuck.

Considering popular media’s portrayals of certain occupations—Come on! A few years ago, the hottest occupation must’ve been housewife!—how much do you think this impacts our decisions? I can think of scores of movies etc broadcasting the romantic life of the writer.

Here’s the thing though: these days, I am a writer, and my life is nowhere close to the constant drama and romanticism that I was promised. Most often, the greatest drama I have is rooted more in my ennui and malaise than anything real. That is, I manufacture drama, in no small part because pop culture has told me that as a writer, my life ought to be fraught. Sure, I don’t buy into it most days. Most days, I’m just a normal person. I do what I need to do: chores, grocery shopping, going to campus, etc. But then, that creeping feeling that something should be wrong surfaces.

And so I have my mini-crises: I’m not reading enough; I’m not writing enough; I’m not giving enough readings; no one is reviewing my books; I’m too depressed; I’m not depressed enough; I have too much anxiety; I should probably work on my anxiety; I need to be more social with non-writers; I need to spend less time on the internet; etc etc. I work pretty hard to subvert the myths of crazy-genius-depressed-writer. I work hard to defy it. Then, out of nowhere, there it is, again, relentless.


  1. Mike Meginnis

      Became a writer because my dad wanted to be one, and then later (again) because reading was my substitute for human interactions.

      Re: Mini-Crises, I think about 70% of our emotional life is generated by the fact of being able to tell each other about it. And as we have more venues in which to tell each other about it, we spend more and more of our time generating content for those venues — we do what we have to do to make it plausible when we say how we’re feeling. Which is why I try not to spend much time thinking about how I’m feeling on any given day. Most of the time I’m really not unless I go looking for it.

  2. drew kalbach

      lily, i can relate. i became a writer for the ladies. and the ladies thanked me for it.

      you’re welcome, ladies.

  3. Joseph Young

      i just edited a paper for a psychology journal that basically concluded that artists [ie, the artist-participants in the study] react with more intense emotions to daily events than do ‘norms.’ i found it interesting since there seems to be a current trend of thought away from Romantic ideas of writers and artists as being different than other people in terms of emotional or psychological makeup.

  4. davidpeak

      this is probably why i always freak out when i’m playing video games

  5. Stranded

      Thanks for the post Lily. I’m wondering about a few things that are unclear to me here and make this post difficult to respond to: one is that one “decides” to be a writer and the second is the question you pose–“why do any of us choose our occupations?” What if we don’t choose them? I don’t mean to imply that you think this is an impossibility but simply that I am drawn to note this from your post. I don’t want to be a writer but I am; however, this is also where I am lured into mini-crises as well, in that because I am a writer I must think about all that is involved in being a writer and this is often a disgusting encounter.

      Andrew’s post was born out of frustration yet this frustration exists, I thin—and for many writers at that—because writers need validation that what they are doing, whether it be enrolling in a program that costs money or trying to find another person to talk about one of the five books they just read, is worth it all. When in a workshop setting the only way to do this is to respond to what others say and “don’t do.” Granted I think that Andrew could do a better job of elucidating his frustration (it exists in every MFA program) I do think that it brings up a deeper argument in “what are the guidelines for letting students into programs?” and should there be necessary interviews (this is all another post, I know)? It also sheds light on the timidity of the workshop setting, that a bunch of writers are committing to be in a room with other writers. If one is timid and careless with their comments they have not really thought about what they are getting themselves into. I wish Andrew would have questioned his class in that setting rather than exploited their carelessness and/or timidity in this forum.

      Also, bringing in worth suggests that there IS something in being a writer that the writer cannot escape. What this is I do not know but I do know that it is where all the mini-crises have their foundation of brew. I will also admit that in not wanting to be a writer I also know that writing is work and I must work at—the MFA is almost a trial period, like a temp agency three month contract to see if there’s a fit, but it isn’t the employer (the academy, the school or the publishing world) that gets to decide if the job remains but the writer who employs themselves in the service of the art. This is where thing get problematic because the self is over involved without many railings to assist. I do agree with the subverting and defying that you note, and there is rarely an in-between.

  6. Tomk

      Persisting to write, once you find out that whatever it is the act of writing offers it’s probably not financial or social benefits…there must be something in that…not that it’s specific to any particular art form or art even i guess. I don’t know.

      Also and not to privilege it but i think anxiety is natural when you’re spending hours and hours consciously spending/possibly wasting time to make something that maybe no one else will like and which you’ll maybe never love as much as another thing someone else has made which you’d wished in some way to emulate, to know what it would have been like to have made something so good.

  7. Eli Artichoke

      “I’m not depressed enough” = hilarious

      Interesting post. I can relate. I definitely romantize the image of the writer, the fraught life of the creative outsider / social critic / rebel. The noble failure, the hard-won success. This image has been shaped by books and movies and TV. Our notions of reality are reinforced by the media we consume. Doctors like doctor shows. Lawyers like lawyer books. Gangsters like gangster movies. Writers like HTMLGIANT.

  8. jesusangelgarcia

      Writing for me was a gateway to relative sanity during a “fraught” time (when I was 13 and my mom was dying). I chanced upon a poetry collection among the limited books on the shelf in the basement that resonated: William Blake, Rilke, Baudelaire, etc. I was always deeply into music. Poetry must have seemed a natural connect. Then I read “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” the romantic Doors biography rife with literary references, and I dove headlong into transgressive behavior and the sloshed identity of Artist Provocateur. I was a “serious poet” (and musician and drunk) throughout high school. Not only was I living my delusional ideal, but I also *had* to write. It was how I processed the world, internal and external, I believe. I wound up at a local university on a poetry scholarship, of all things, then (once I could write in complete run-on sentences) I launched a journalism/criticism “career,” publishing as a quasi-professional (the choice here was easy: proselytize about Great Art for pennies and get free music and tickets to shows and the inside track to a wide range of cultural events). So me doing this writing thing stems from both compulsion and free will. I guess you could say I’ve put myself in God’s hands (and I’m praying for a lightning strike).

  9. stephen

      I feel wonderful today

  10. Anonymous

      I bought a Bukowski book when I was suicidal, depressed and dope sick. It was “You feel so alone at times.” I hadn’t read much poetry before, and my only motivation in picking Buk was related to an irc conversation I had with a fellow hacker 10 years prior (back in ’94).

      Some of the poems in the book induced emotions in me, something I hadn’t felt for a very long time due to the depression/opiates.

      I was very grateful for those poems.

      Then I wanted to recreate that feeling, not for other people, but for me.

      That’s what started my writing.

      Hi Lily!

  11. lily hoang

      thank you, drew, so very very much.

  12. lily hoang

      thank you, drew, so very very much.

  13. lily hoang

      i find studies like this fairly suspect. self-identified ‘artists’ walking into a psychological study… what do i know? it’s probably a pretty good paper.

  14. lily hoang

      i find studies like this fairly suspect. self-identified ‘artists’ walking into a psychological study… what do i know? it’s probably a pretty good paper.

  15. lily hoang

      me too! my hands sweat. i stop breathing. seriously, i thought lego indiana jones was going to end me.

  16. lily hoang

      me too! my hands sweat. i stop breathing. seriously, i thought lego indiana jones was going to end me.

  17. lily hoang

      Hi Stranded: There seems to be a hint of pre-destination in your comments, which I don’t prescribe to. I don’t think I was inevitably going to be a writer. I chose this. I should’ve been a doctor or a lawyer. In truth, my brain probably better suited for math or science. But I determined myself to be a writer.

      Nor do I believe I am fated to be anxiety-ridden, etc. There is a level of self-propagation, which I chide myself for, but when I am feeling particularly indulgent and/or, the nervousness creeps in starts it all going again.

  18. lily hoang

      I agree, Tomk. We spend a lot of time working on something that most people will never read, and if they do read it, they probably won’t even like it, much less “get.” There must be something to that, but I’m not sure that’s the genesis of writerly angst. Maybe. Who knows.

  19. karl taro

      is the occupation here writing or teaching? Occupation is usually defined by how one makes a living. Let’s not forget, teaching for a living and writing for a living are certainly different and the psychic landscapes of the occupations are different. I would say one benefit of writing to support yourself is that you don’t do as much of that introspective, “what does being a writer mean?” sort of self-appraisal. at some point, deadline looms, and you sit down and go to work. and your ego and sense of self and all that gets wrapped up in trying to get this piece done so that you can get paid and pay the mortgage and health insurance and all that good stuff. at that level, it’s not romantic or unromantic, it’s just honest work. (usually honest, anyway) and sometimes, that writing, the articles or essays that you take on because you need the money, that can be the best writing you do. and that’s confusing in a way, because we all think we are the world’s greatest experts on ourselves and our writing. but it turns out its liberating to be told, “write this”, when you’ve never thought about writing about this person or that subject before.
      and when you are done with THAT work, the fact that you can come back to THIS sort of work, which isn’t for money, then you are so grateful that you get to do something that you want to do, well, you don’t waste as much time wondering about the life of a writer. because as long as you are writing, at least a little everyday, then everything else just falls into place.

  20. lily hoang

      I am sick today. It is miserable.

  21. lily hoang

      Hi Jereme Dean.

  22. lily hoang

      Lightning strikes are very dangerous. I guess God is too. So, there’s that.

  23. lily hoang

      Lightning strikes are very dangerous. I guess God is too. So, there’s that.

  24. Ytftyf


  25. Ytftyf


  26. Nick Mamatas

      I wanted to work from home.

  27. jesusangelgarcia

      One and the same in my book, Lily. Hope you feel better. I’m snuffly, too.

  28. jesusangelgarcia

      I like the idea of wanting to recreate those emotions for yourself through your writing, Jereme. Are you (or have you been) able to do so?

  29. Anonymous

      No, not the way those initial poems felt. Not yet at least.

  30. jesusangelgarcia

      Ahh, but then that keeps you plowing forward, no? Pursuit of what may be unattainable is a powerful pursuit, I think.

  31. jesusangelgarcia

      Do you find it ironic that reading/(writing?) was your substitute for human interactions, and yet these days, to be read — to generate a decent audience for your writing — you’re pretty much compelled to interact with humans more than ever?

  32. Anonymous

      Yeah, that and all the pussy being a poet brings.

  33. jesusangelgarcia

      Duh? That goes w/out saying.

  34. Mcmfs

      I’ve never felt comfortable identifying as a writer, or any other labeled thing. Never felt like I’d satisfy other people’s definition.

  35. Mike Meginnis

      Hey, if people can put up with me, I would love to interact with them: my social isolation was not something I enjoyed!

  36. jesusangelgarcia

      Oh, funny. I thought you was down on the peoples…. Speaking of socialization: Are you AWPDC bound?

  37. Mike Meginnis

      Naw, I was just home-schooled and awkward as hell. And yes, I will be there! Mostly at the Puerto del Sol table.

  38. jesusangelgarcia

      I’ll see you at the table then on Saturday (free book fair). Otherwise, I’m only going for off-site nighttime fun and to charm conference-goers into participating in my badbadbad film project.

      Hey, I know there’s a lot going on every night, but here’s what I’m up to — “Live Nude Words!” — on Thursday evening: http://www.badbadbad.net/Page1.html#livenudewords

      Also plan to end up at the “Literature Party” (Fri) and “MegaReading” (Sat), racing around to others beforehand, I’m sure.

  39. voorface

      Look at that photo. You can see instantly that they’re doctor’s/nurses. That’s part of it, I think. It’s not just that there is no uniform for writers, but there’s also no writers’ hospital, no special building where writing happens. (There’s the university of course, but it’s not quite the same) Even though Grey’s Anatomy is fictional, there’s still the real life ritual to slip into. With writing – unless you’re one of those creeps who buys an old fashioned typewriter or, I don’t know, wears a cape and a cane like Gregory Corso – then there’s nothing. All you have is the silly TV version.

  40. Voorface

      ugh, *doctors*

  41. Stranded

      I’m not entirely sure I follow the pre-destination comment but now I better understand where you stand. I understand the comment in terms of having, by the time I finally waded through my own thoughts and unnecessarily bulked up my response in doing so, moved toward a certain statement. Though I had/have no destination in mind, I only wanted to engage your thoughts on how writers become writers, which you’ve answered in that you chose the field. Also, you chose well in not being a doctor or lawyer.

  42. phmadore

      “I work pretty hard to subvert the myths of crazy-genius-depressed-writer. I work hard to defy it. Then, out of nowhere, there it is, again, relentless.”

      What do you do about the undying feminine narcissism and bourgeois sense of entitlement?

  43. phmadore

      I started writing because I became convinced of my own mortality and rebellious thereto, because I knew that the audience I sought did not exist within earshot, and to get laid.

  44. lily hoang

      Quite honestly, I don’t think I’m more or less narcissistic than most North Americans, which is entirely unrelated my gender. I can admit that I am bourgeois, but if you looked at my paycheck, you’d see I’m hovering on the poverty line. That, and my dad was a janitor and my mom worked in service. They’re both immigrants and were shit on because of their accent for my entire life. I learned to speak properly and with authority because they couldn’t. I know you have this thing against HTML folk because we’re all “so fucking privileged” but maybe you could hold off on the assuming accusations a little? I’m probably not nearly the asshole a few public posts make me out to be. Most of us aren’t. As you know, blogs, writing, etc, it’s all a public performance.

  45. lily hoang

      Hi Karl, I know plenty of writers who survive on writing alone – reviews, non-fiction, essays, whatever – and they aren’t immune. Your comment seems to be very critical of teaching, which I can understand, though I’m just not sure that the whole “writing full time” model yields such different results. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I just know the wrong kind of full time writers.