What’s the Story #68

"All of us who write know that every hour we devote to our notepad or keyboard involves monumental risk"

It might seem, to the outsider, that writers live pretty safe lives. Yes, there are some, mostly journalists, who immerse themselves in troubled and war-torn countries, and they can and do get hurt. But most of us who write sit at keyboards or notepads every day and create stuff—poems, plays, stories, essays—mostly from our heads.

Still, although we may be safe from physical harm, all of us who write know that every hour we devote to our notepad or keyboard, every moment we stop and think and dwell on the thoughts and ideas that will, in one way or another, find life on a page or computer display, involves monumental risk. Think about the writer’s life. Whether we write for an hour or eight hours every day, whether we write before sunrise or late into the night after the kids have been tucked into bed, we are often toiling in limbo and with ongoing hope—and doubt. Will I get it right, we wonder—and How long might that take? It is all so isolating.

It is not as if we can discuss our writing with friends and colleagues and neighbors. Talking about what we are writing, the essence of what we are trying to say, can and often does leave us empty when we eventually sit down to write it. Writing is often spontaneous. Ideas are often inspired by the sheer act of writing—even if we have done a ton of research and even if we have mulled ideas over in our minds repeatedly. The act of writing is like catching a fly ball or swinging a golf club. We wait for the opportunity—the time and place—and then we go for it. Sometimes it comes out all right. But mostly, alas, it doesn’t—not the first time or the second time or even the third time. We do it again and again, sentence after sentence after paragraph after page, fighting the frustration and our own demons, and the fear of failure.

And maybe it’s better if we don’t talk about the economic risks. It is certainly true that writers can become rich and famous, like, say, James Patterson or John Grisham, but let’s get serious. If we are writing for a magazine or website, we may be paid a few hundred dollars if we are lucky—or we may be paid nothing at all, or only in contributor copies and “exposure.” And for books? While six-figure advances are possible for commercial properties, authors of literary fiction and nonfiction are fortunate to receive advances of $5,000—and often much less. After working four or five or more years on that novel or memoir, risking time and energy that might have been more financially fruitful, don’t even think about breaking down your effort into an hourly wage!

I have been writing all my life, and I learned early on not to mention what I do when I meet new people; I try to keep my primary profession, my obsession, private. I say I teach at a university or edit a magazine, but rarely that I am a writer, for then they inevitably ask: “Have I ever read what you have written?” Or “When will it be published?

The risks we take at the keyboard are only the beginning. We finish our essay, poem, memoir, and send it out. Then we take a deep breath and try to move on to the next thing because, then, all we can do is wait—months, in the case of most literary magazines. And then? Maybe you get an acceptance, but most likely you get a curt rejection. No feedback. No comment.

And even when we do get something published, most of the people we know—even really good friends—won’t read it. They might read our review in the New York Times or listen to our interview on NPR, should we be so fortunate, but actually buying (and reading) our book? Not often. And what happens when the reviews are not so good? I have been zinged in my career, more than once.

Or, perhaps worse, everyone will read it—which is terrific, though also potentially uncomfortable, particularly if we’ve bared our souls on the page. Maybe our family members will object to the way we’ve described them, or they’ll disagree with the way we remember a certain incident. Maybe readers will feel free to judge us harshly based on the stories we tell. Or they’ll feel entitled to question or criticize our decisions—how we behaved, how we parented, how we brought problems on ourselves.

In this issue, writers ponder the various ways we balance the threat of loss or failure against the promise of gain, both on and off the page. Anne P. Beatty’s “You Don’t Have to Be Here”—winner of the $1,000 best essay prize sponsored by the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University—considers, among other things, the very different expectations parents in Nepal (where Beatty served a Peace Corps tour) and the United States have of their children. Sarah Kasbeer recalls the thrill and terror of going off the high-dive, and Jefferson Slagle goes skiing alone (though he knows he shouldn’t) in avalanche country. In other stories, writers impulsively invite famous chefs to dinner, set off on poorly planned road trips, and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of medicating their children.

As you’ll see, braving all these risks can (and often does) lead to magnificent rewards, not only in real life but also on the page. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as seeing your words and ideas come to life in your writing, though a close second is the elation when people reach out to us by e-mail or letter, or stop us on the street, and say they appreciate what we have said and how we said it. Our stories can make an impact. This is, in the end, why—despite everything—we write.

About the Author

Screen Shot 2011-11-18 at 3
Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

View Essays

Leave a Reply