Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Secret Author

If you set your heart on becoming a writer don't announce your dream to the world, writes Laura Zigman (author of the novel Animal Husbandry) in the Washington Post. Stick a sock in your mouth, if you have to she says, because all those "sensible people" (parents, guidance counsellers) will use every psychological weapon in their armoury to dissuade you.

Worst still, you will come to internalise their arguments and believe them yourself. Psychologists call this the Stockholm Syndrome, she says, when captives begin to share the views of their captors.

Zigman then predicts the stages you'll pass through:
You will now enter a long (seemingly placid but emotionally turbulent) period of denial that can sometimes last years (or decades). You will lie. "Who me? Be a writer? And put up with all that rejection? Are you kidding?" You will obfuscate. "Who would want to be a writer? Can you imagine being someone who wanted to be a writer?" When pressed, you will even philosophize: "If a writer writes something that never gets published and is thus never read, is a writer still a writer?"

In order to convince yourself and others that you have "moved on" (accepted defeat without even trying), you will learn to hide in plain sight: You will get a normal job, one with an actual office and an actual desk (engaging in "freelance work" from your apartment or working "odd jobs" with "odd hours" are dead giveaways of your true intentions and unconscious desires). In exchange for your 40 (or 50 or 60) hours a week of work (indentured servitude), you'll receive a respectable paycheck (let's be frank: not much more than you made waitressing in high school at the International House of Pancakes or working the drive-thru at Burger King) and medical benefits (to pay for psychotherapy, twice a week, to deal with the stress of all your repression). Most important, your job will provide you with some financial security and emotional stability (not to mention the perfect opportunity for people watching, eavesdropping, Internet research and working on something -- Fiction? Nonfiction? Comedy? Tragedy? -- even if you don't yet know what that something is).

In addition to the macro-lie (yourself as Career Drone), you'll see that you need to make up lots of little lies to protect your true identity (Secret Writer Person). You'll have to appear ambitious and deserving of promotions (show up before noon); pretend to embrace any and all career-enhancing business trips and client interactions (even though you see any time away from your true calling as a soul-deadening, blood-sucking diversion); and continue to dress the part (never complaining about how dumb it is that you have to spend all your money on work clothes when you could be home writing your novel in your pajamas).

And then one day, out of the blue, just when you think you're finally lost in the jungle, you will see it. You will look at all the papers and files and meaningless detritus on your desk, you will watch all your wonderfully idiosyncratic co-workers racing busily around the office, talking of Michelangelo, and you will stop whatever it is you are doing. The world you've tried so hard to join will suddenly cease to exist, and you will finally see that life without your dream is a wasteland; that you must at least try to do the thing you really want to do even if, in the end, you do not succeed at it. You will be tempted to put the better-to-have-loved-and-lost rule in parentheses, like everything else in your life that you've sidelined and tried to ignore up until now, but you will resist and settle for multiple hyphens instead. It is a step. You are about to head into the great unknown, and you will be tempted to throw away the map to your lost world in triumph, but don't - you will need something to write on.

Oh, but don't I just see myself in all this! I came timorously to writing in my fourties (how dare be so presumptuous?) and wished I'd had the courage to get started a couple of decades earlier. How I envy these young writers who are claiming their right to write from the onset!

And I think rings true too when I think of many of my course participants, who so desperately want to write but feel they lack a sense of permission. (Only that. Not the stories to tell or the words to tell them with.)

If you want to write, claim your space, and don't give the naysayers room in your head. Power to your pens!


Syafique said...

Friends told me that I can't exactly live by writing and I guess they have done a good job convincing me that. I will graduate with a degree next year and I am planning to get a job (with a desk, office, colleagues, etc.) until I can earn a living from writing.

bibliobibuli said...

i noticed that you've already started getting stuff published so well done.

truth is, you got to eat. writing for a living generally takes you either into journalism or copywriting - both hard work, long hours, the latter i think pays better than the former. but if you are writing for someone else all day, do you want to write for yourself after hours?

there's nothing wrong with a day job and most writers have them. (and writers who don't are necessarily more productive than those who do). the day job is also a good way of accumulating material.

but i think what is more important is that you claim space in your own head and know that you are a writer even though you have to spend time doing something else.

btw - i see in your profile you put down kfc and mcdonalds as hobbies. that made me laugh!

Sham said...

I have made writing my day job!! I started off as a medical writer officially on Friday and I am well on my way - although the gist of writing may be different - I want to thank you Sharon for prodding me in that direction and accept the fact that if I enjoyed writing and think that I can go somewhere with it - I should go pursue it!!!
So there!!!!
Happy anniversary to your blog and let's do coffee sometime soon

Ted Mahsun said...

"Power to your pens!" Hear hear! The greatest obstacle to writing is low self-esteem. Overcome that and suddenly a whole world opens up!

btw Sharon (or is it Ms. Bibs now? hehe), went to Kinokuniya just now and saw Francine Prose's book being displayed. Wanted so much to get it, but it's in hardcover and costs RM80+ so I think I'll wait till the paperback comes out.

bibliobibuli said...

sham - really glad to hear you've started your new job - congrats. i am so sorry i didn't contact you last week - just blurrly forgot to give you a call. what are your hours like now? i was going to say "drop by" ... but can you do that now

ted - oh dear - i'm probably paying much more for the book on amazon. shows kino are really on the ball though

John Ling said...

Very true.

I suppose it's not matter of how viable writing is. Rather, it's a matter on how much you are willing to give up in order to write.

I mean sacrificing mamak gatherings, clubbing sessions, television viewings, computer games, and just about everything else so you can knuckle down and write.

Argus Lou said...

Knuckle down and write - that's what it's all about. I left my day job writing and editing for a publication two months ago, but I find creative writing slow going. There can be so many distractions if we allow them to eat up our time -- surfing the 'Net, blogging, day-dreaming, TV, etc.

My children's novel is going nowhere fast, so I'm giving short story writing a shot -- to shore up some writing confidence and sense of achievement.

sky said...

To paraphrase a Filipino author, we are a continent of part-time writers.

Becoming a bestseller is every writer's holy grail. If that time comes, then it's chewing off the royalties as they trickle in. No more part-times. Yes to a room with a view.

And I think it doesn't take that much of an effort. Just look at the Da Vinci Code. Oops.

Nashé Abdillah said...

Hello Sharon,

Perhaps you don't know and remember me but we met during the KL International Lit. Fest '04 when you chaired the session in which I presented a paper. The other two were Dr. Carol Leon & Feroza Jussawalla :)

Just wanna say hello. By the way, do you have any news regarding the next KL International Lit. Fest?

Have a nice day!


bibliobibuli said...

sky - i like the quote

nashe - sorry it took me so long to find this comment. raman is planning the next litfest for march 2007.