We’ve all heard some version of it. It usually happens at a party, or in a bar, or basically any social occasion where you’re forced to mingle with people you don’t really know. You find yourself in a conversation with someone new, and the dreaded question comes up: ‘So, what do you do?’
As much as I love what I do, and even though I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, this is my least favourite question in the world. It’s even less fun than ‘How’s your love life?’ which I used to think was a scenario Bridget Jones was being hyperbolic about. But then I turned twenty-five.
About fifty per cent of the time, after admitting that I’m a writer, the person in question will respond with something along the lines of ‘Oh, how fun! God, I’ve always thought about writing something. Look at what’s popular now, it seems so easy.’
And they’re not being mean, or rude (unless you tell them you write for a TV soap. Then they really can), but it is a frustrating thing, and I never know how to respond to it. Because as we all know, writing can be difficult. Writing well can be even harder. It takes time, and discipline. You can’t just bash out the first draft and leave it there, you need to edit, and edit, and rewrite, and edit.
Even though this is something we choose to do, it can be exhausting and draining to spend so much time and energy on this one idea that is so wonderful in your head but just won’t translate onto the page in a way that does it justice, this group of characters you love but who keep taking on minds of their own and making decisions you didn’t expect or plan for. You write pages and pages you throw out later, you spend hours trying to find the truth and heart in just one line of dialogue. And you do all of this knowing that for all your work, it might never be published, or read, or produced.
It’s difficult. And more than that, it’s scary.
It’s terrifying to put your heart and soul into something, and then have to show it to someone. It’s a great conundrum of writing, and not every writer experiences it. Some people have that self esteem thing, which is, frankly, just rude. But even if you do, the constant rejection that comes with being a writer can be hard to take sometimes.
If you have an editor, they’ll constantly tell you what’s wrong with your work. And this is a good thing, because it makes your work better. But while criticism and feedback is useful, hearing nothing but what you’ve done poorly over an extended time can be disheartening. And if you have a session where it seems like everything you’ve done is being criticised, it can be downright devastating.
If you make it past the editing and complete your work, you get to be rejected by literary agent after literary agent, until (or if) you finally find one who’ll accept you and then you’ll be rejected by publisher after publisher. After this, if you’re lucky enough and your work is strong enough, you may be torn down by critics, and you’ll definitely be torn down by someone on the internet. And they’ll be meaner than anyone you’ve faced before, because until now you’ve been politely rejected by people doing their job. People on the internet don’t have that filter.
If you self-publish, the route is a little different. At first, you get to be rejected by the resounding lack of readers you’d hoped would surge on your work, and then, if you do get popular, you’ll probably get to be torn down by someone on the internet. And they will tweet it to you.
If you’re working on a screenplay or television pilot, you’ve got a whole other slew of rejection coming to you. I don’t know how playwriting, poetry or journalism works, but I’m guessing each brings its own unique rejection hell as well.
See? Scary. And that’s a best case scenario.
So why do we do it? Why do we pour everything we have into something only about two per cent of people ever really succeed at?
Because we have to. Because that idea plants itself in our minds and grows until we can’t think about anything else. Because we all remember that one (or two, or five, or ninety-seven) story that wrapped us up and carried us away somewhere special and stayed with us forever even after it set us down. Because if there’s a chance we can have that effect on just one person it will all have been worth it.
Writing is scary and it’s hard, but it’s beautiful too. And on our darkest days, when the fear wins and all we feel is useless and untalented, we need to remember that.