Searching for the Writing Life
by Sandi Sonnenfeld ’85
I was twenty-four years old and enrolled in my first year in the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Washington when Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life first hit the bestseller list. I devoured each page, my heart pounding as she spoke of words that hammered against the walls of one’s house, about how writing was the freest way to live. I gobbled up each of her delicate bon mots as if they were the finest Swiss bon-bons. I read and re-read passages until they flew off the page and entered my bloodstream by osmosis, her words reverberating off the soft spongy walls of my brain. Apart from being a wonderful guide on what it means to write, Dillard’s book exhibited the best in what good writing should be: fresh, interesting metaphors, near perfect use of rhythm and repetition, and complex ideas presented in a strong narrative framework.
I was twenty-four and in love with the idea of success as much as I was in love with words, and as I read her book, I vowed that I would always live the writing life. I would write brilliant novels with insightful characters that made readers laugh and cry at the same time. I would gather around me a group of writing friends, a modern-day salon where nearly every conversation would be about the meaning of art, the importance of literature, and the role that we as artists would play in the world.
Most of all, I would never, never hold down a nine to five job. That was for conventional people, for lawyers and Boeing engineers, for telephone repairmen and marketing reps, not for “creative” people such as myself. Besides if I worked a regular job, I would never have time to write. So I would do as Dillard did. As all my writing teachers at Mount Holyoke, my undergraduate institution, and the University of Washington did. I would teach creative writing. One or two classes a semester, filled with inspired, talented (though not more talented than me I hoped) students whom were also committed to the writing life. And of course, after the appropriate amount of rejection, I would win my first Pulitzer Prize, the acceptance speech for which I had already been writing in my head for at least a year. Ladies and gentleman of Columbia University…
After all, Dillard had won the Pulitzer at the ripe old age of twenty-nine; why couldn’t I?
Such a pipe dream may seem very naive and perhaps more than a bit brazen, but people do it, live the writing life, all the time. Such people are our mentors in college, or we read about them in the Times Book Review or in interviews in Poets & Writers. In fact, the New York Review of Books is almost entirely dedicated to and aimed at men and women of letters who exclusively live the writing life.
Ten years later, I have published more than a dozen short stories and essays in journals and magazines throughout the country. I’ve been anthologized twice. And every few years or so, I win a small writing prize. But I have yet to publish a full-length work, even though I have the completed manuscript for three novels and a memoir all carefully stored away in my files. I have no idea what happened to the draft of the Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech I was working on. It probably got inadvertently thrown away when my husband and I moved out of our apartment and into our first house (though of course I did manage to hang on to every rejection letter I ever received).
But that’s not to say that I didn’t give the writing life a fair try. After I received my MFA, I taught creative writing and composition classes part-time at various community colleges around the Puget Sound region. I told myself that part-time teaching was only temporary–a stepping stone into eventually securing a full-time tenured position, which paid substantially more money and would allow me to qualify for sabbaticals which I would use to travel and write more brilliant novels.
I actually liked teaching, enjoyed speaking with students about the importance of writing and literature in our lives. I liked the faculty whom I worked with, many of them writers themselves, and I liked the spontaneity of the classroom, where despite my lesson plan I always needed to be quick on my feet to take advantage of a question a student asked, or come up with an alternative exercise on passive voice when I realized that the students weren’t responding well to the one that I had planned to use.
But despite the fact that I only spent two or three hours a day in the classroom, I discovered that teaching did not offer lots of time and freedom to write–I would spend most of my days marking student compositions, wondering if I could manage to read yet one more compare and contrast essay on the difference between a Isuzu Trooper and a Jeep Cherokee Laredo without slitting my wrists.
I also wasn’t making enough money (even when I combined two or three different teaching positions each quarter, I never earned more than twelve thousand dollars a year). Because I often needed to be at one community college at nine a.m., and at second one by ten thirty, I couldn’t rely on public transportation to get me there. I needed a car. I owed more than twenty thousand dollars in student loans–the price I paid to learn about the writing life in the first place. And finally, there was my husband, who after working fifteen years in the film and television industry, sustained a debilitating back injury and was forced to change careers, resulting in nearly two years of unemployment while he underwent medical treatment and retraining.
So one day about three years ago, I drew in a deep breath, revised my resume, opened up the help wanted ads and looked for a full-time job. I had hoped to find a position as an editor at a publishing house or magazine, but while Seattle has a number of fine small presses, most of them rely on volunteers or pay even less than part-time teaching.
Now I work a 50-hour week as a senior account executive for one of Seattle’s leading advertising and public relations firms. In many ways, I write far more often now than I did when I taught. In fact, I write all the time at my office: e-mails, memos, marketing plans, press releases and media kits, video scripts and white papers. On the behalf of my clients, I even get to pitch, write and publish articles in leading business and news publications. Only my name is never on the byline. And I rarely get to write about emotions, or universal truths, or even get to tell a great story in the traditional narrative sense. I mostly write about new products or new technologies available on the market and why consumers, or business executives, or physicians need to buy them. I am good at what I do–all those years writing in active voice and using zippy adjectives help make for lively copy. I enjoy my colleagues, and I often find myself getting caught up in office politics, contemplating the steps I need to take to get that next promotion, ask for that next raise, and sometimes even entertain the notion of what it might be like to become a company vice president.
But then a friend e-mails me that her husband has said that if she wants to stay home full-time to work on her novel, he will support her. Or another friend tells me that she is leaving the city to live in a rural community where less distractions and less bills will allow her to devote her days just to writing. And I think about Renie and Maddy, my two protagonists in chapter three of my latest novel, whom I have left abandoned on a deserted snow bank in Lake Placid for nearly a month because I was away on business and too busy or too preoccupied to devote a single thought about how to rescue them. I realize that I have begun writing literary essays rather than short stories or novels, because they take less time to write and I generally can complete a draft in a single weekend. A hot squirt of acid eats into the pit of my stomach when I recall that I haven’t submitted a short story to a magazine in six months, and unless I submit the work, publication will never happen. I recognize that I have missed deadlines for writing grants, fiction writing contests, and readings, all of things I am supposed to apply for, or care about, or do, in order to live a proper writing life.
The thing is, I do care. It bothers me that when I sit down at the computer to work on my novel, I sometimes have to go back to an earlier chapter to recall the names of the secondary characters because it has been so long since I’ve last been in contact with them. I envy friends or acquaintances who graduated from the MFA program the same year I did or even a few years after, who have not only published one or two novels, but whose work regularly appears on the New York Times bestseller list. I then feel guilty about being envious. I agonize over every television show I decide to watch at the end of a long tiring work day, because I know that if I were a “real” writer, I would have the energy and commitment to go straight to the computer and begin working (I mean if Herman Melville could get up at four a.m. every morning to write for three hours before he left for his job as a lawyer’s scrivener, surely I could find thirty minutes after dinner to do the same?).
But in those same ten years while I have been struggling to try to find my way into the writing life, a strange trend has taken hold of the publishing world. As the industry continues to be consumed by the nineties malaise known as “mergers and acquisitions,” fewer and fewer publishing houses are issuing first novels, or even novels at all. At the same time, the market has been flooded by a long steady stream of manuscripts that I can only describe as “self-help” books for writers. Books that while ostensibly about the writing process really are a series of primers on how to live a proper writer’s life. From Natalie Goldberg to Anne Lamott, from Julia Cameron to Joel Saltzman, do this, these books say, and you can be successful like me. You only have to find the time to write three hours a day. You only have to keep a notebook by your bed to write down every dream you have. You only have to visualize that you are alone in a desert and fill in the details with your mind’s eye. You only have to describe everything around you that is pink. Or green. Or purple. Write about food and your writer’s block will disappear. Do timed writings and you’ll unlock the key to your novel.
I know these self-help books are meant to be comforting, to offer reassurance to writers that books aren’t created by magic, but simply by hard work and a fierce desire to write. And based on how well many of these books sell, they obviously do strike a chord with many writers or would-be writers. But I find such books terrifying, for they seem to imply that if only I had followed their suggestions, if only I acted and did things the way they do, I would be like them. I too could be living the writing life.
Rarely do these books offer any insight into how to balance writing with a full-time career (In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott even facetiously boasts that she must be a writer, because she isn’t equipped to DO anything else). Rarely do these books inform readers that less than five percent of all writers working today earn more than five thousand dollars a year, and unless a writer is lucky enough to inherit wealth or marry it, that he or she better be thinking about another way to make a living. Rarely do these books even acknowledge that most of us barely have enough hours in the day to go to work, spend time with our spouse or children or pets, exercise, food shop, pay bills, do laundry, let alone work on novels. And when I do make the time, carve four or five hours out of my weekend to sit down and write, the last thing I want to do is eat up that time by doing a series of writing exercises to get me in the mood. I want to get back to Maddy and Renie on that snow bank, I want to draft that essay about the time my best friend in high school told me she was dying to ensure that she maintained the upper hand in our friendship. I don’t want to spend time thinking about why I am doing it. I don’t want to spend anxious sleepless nights wondering if I sold out as a writer because not only do I not write three hours every day, I often don’t write three hours every week.
I am aware that I have free will. That any time I want to I can decide that the house, the cat and the job aren’t worth it and I can quit (though what I am supposed to live on is not yet clear). I am aware that I control my guilt levels, my bouts of self-doubt, my envy of other writers who seem more successful than me, who win more awards, publish more often, or simply have better attitudes towards the entire writing process.
Self-doubt is the writer’s worst enemy–a sharp-beaked hawk ready to strike at the least provocation. It leads to writer’s block; it leads to mediocre writing that is mediocre simply because it fails to take risks.
For a long time after I made the decision to take a full-time job, I started to believe that I wasn’t a writer anymore, not a “real” one–not someone who lived Annie Dillard’s sort of writing life, devoted all her energies to capturing that perfect sentence on the page, writing it and rewriting it until it resonated like a clarion in a church. And if I was not going to live the “writing life,” how dare I presume that I could write at all? What right did I have to call myself a writer, when in fact so few of my hours were devoted to it? We authors want to think of ourselves as writing all the time, just as most of us want to think of ourselves as exercising regularly. Unfortunately, doing errands in spandex shorts and an oversized sweatshirt is not actually the same as a daily pilates class.
I fail at it a lot. I fail to stay cheerful, I fail to stay confident. I get angry, mostly with myself, for being lazy, for creating excuses, for envying others, though occasionally I simply get angry at the circumstances under which I must create. And I complain far, far too much about how hard it is to do so. My husband often asks me, if you aren’t having fun, if it is so difficult, why do you keep doing it?
I don’t know how to explain it to him. Or even to myself. I actually have tried not to be a writer. I have in fact deliberately gone weeks or even months without putting a single creative thought down on the page. I tell myself that I will be happier that way; perhaps then I will no longer be plagued by guilt and self-loathing when I fail to produce quality work. But sooner or later, a character will begin forming in my mind, demanding my attention, asking that I come out and play with her, find out why I cannot seem to shake her image. The feeling may come over me in that lovely shimmery gray time between wake and sleep; it may hit me while I am on the phone with a client, and an odd phrase begins to echo in my head.
In the film classic The Red Shoes, the main character, a prima ballerina played by actress Moira Shearer is interviewed by a journalist who asks her why she dances.
“Why do you breathe?” she responds.
“Because I must,” he says.
“Yes,” she says. “That’s my answer too.”
I think it’s the answer for all of us trying to make sense of the writing life. You do it because you must, and therefore, you will, despite yourself, despite the long hours of your job, the weekly laundry, and all the societal pressure telling you to focus on other things like a retirement saving plan, organic cooking or a yearly vacation to DisneyWorld, sooner or later, you will close the door to your bedroom or den or study, open your notebook or turn on your computer, and on the clear, white, blank page, you will make your mark.
This essay was originally published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Spring/Summer 2001. The year after it ran, Sandi published her first book: This Is How I Speak, for which she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Copyright belongs to the author.