I’m Not Having a Nervous Breakdown, I am Just Trying to Write

If you listen long enough, you can learn some interesting facts. Such as:

Just about everybody wants to own a restaurant, since it would be fun to cook and hang out with friends.

Just about everybody else would like to be a writer, since it’s easy and creative and fun.

Frankly, I think those are both two of the most delusional ideas I’ve ever heard. (Do you know the failure rates of restaurants? Do you know how much money writers don’t make?) Those dreams are right up there with the notion of having a baby so you’ll have someone to love you. Lovely in theory, deranged in practice.

I was recently in a conversation with a woman who suggested we get together and talk, since we were both writers. As it turned out, she had been writing for all of a week and said she loved writing since it was “so relaxing.” I got a little apoplectic at that point, but that’s just me.

But maybe I should have simply launched into a description of a writer’s life to deter her from continuing her new career into a second week. Maybe I should have told her how you end up spending a lot of time alone, so desperate for conversation you end up exchanging confidences with your cat or cornering some hapless plumber or other repairman to tell him about your most recent bout of rejection and consequent slump in self-esteem.

“I’m still talented, aren’t I?” you find yourself sobbing to the plumber, who would clearly rather be crawling under your house to extract the little rat colony that’s thriving under your floorboards and chewing on your dishwasher line than listening to your maudlin waterfall of self-pity. “I mean, it’s all subjective, right? Just because that one person hates my writing doesn’t mean it sucks. Does it?”

By this point, the plumber, who looks a little desperate and distraught, too, says he has an emergency sewer line break a few blocks away and much as he’d like to stay and chat with you more and listen to you howl, he has to investigate. He grabs the check the instant you write it and kind of runs to his van.

Which might make you feel bad, ordinarily, but you revert to worrying about the cat’s being gone for two weeks and what did he mean when he said he needed a little time to himself to “think about things”? And what did he mean when he referred to you as “extremely needy”?

Well, so I would have explained all of this to the woman who’d been writing for a week — how lonely and degrading and hopeless it can be. But the situation is a little murkier than that. Like all seriously neurotic human beings — which is to say like all writers — I harbor a secret, shameful fear. Namely: What if this woman is the real thing? What if she’s just pumped out a masterpiece in a month or so and movie rights are being auctioned.

“Writing is so relaxing!” she’ll tell the worshipful crowds who show up at her book signings, the respectful TV interviewers, the critics dumbstruck by her genius.

If this happens, I will try very hard not to be bitter. I will find it in myself to be magnanimous.

If I don’t show up at her book signing, it will be nothing personal. I’m still spending most of my time looking for my cat.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)


26 comments… add one
  • Even if she’s the real thing–which she’s not–she’s annoying. And, for that, she deserves sneers, jeers, and a computer crash just as she finishes a relaxing writing session.

  • If I had a dollar for every time someone told me “I’ve always wanted to write a book” I would be able to stop writing and just count my money.

    Writing is not relaxing. I don’t know one REAL money earning writer who finds it to be relaxing. It is so damn stressful and emotionally dangerous that it’s a wonder I can string two words together at this point.

  • People really don’t have a clue, do they? I actually gave up trying to make money from writing and opened a B&B where the ease of collecting $ from customers still amazes me. It is so much less stressful to be an innkeeper! But, since I was born a writer, the obsession doesn’t let go and I continue to dream of success as a writer, too.

  • Loved this.

  • Relaxing? Writing is relaxing? Even READING what I’ve written is far from relaxing. 🙂

  • What is it about “wanting?” Alas, I’ve likely “wanted,” too. Who am I kidding…I know I have “wanted!”

  • OK … so I actually DO have a friend who quit her job (as a lawyer) and wrote a NY Times Best-Selling novel in like a MONTH. She wrote several more after that. Some have been optioned for movies with big names attached.

    I try not to hate her. Truly.

    Because over time, she has learned how hard and what a slog writing is … which is why she is NOT cranking out a new novel each year anymore.

    I still adore her and admire and envy her success, but it is not the norm.

    We’re all bumping along trying to find the right word and pay the bills at the same time.

  • What the Kentucky Fried Chicken is this woman writing that is relaxing, I wonder? Poems in ode to her cat maybe.

  • Sheryl Link

    Yes, writing is so relaxing it induces naps, otherwise known as avoidance.

  • This is so great. Writing is relaxing? Ha!

  • M.K. Link

    Another great column. Thanks.
    I’m NOT a writer, but this is one of my favorite quotes:

    “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
    – Gene Fowler –

  • Christine Link

    This is so funny! This made me realize too that I have not really run into wannabe writers…..which is I guess a good thing?

  • Few writers have an easy time of it. I suspect that someone who thinks writing is easy isn’t truly digging deep and creating something of substance. There’s a big difference between writing in a journal for yourself and writing a novel or other prose that people actually want to read.

  • I love Sheryl’s comment. Yes, writing is so relaxing, that on Sunday mornings, when I’m desperate to get away from the black and white westerns my husband has on (Sunday is his day with the remote), I almost cannot bear the thought of going over to my studio, where I “relax” the other 6 days of the week – even if it is for a little peace and quiet.

  • I always wanted to be a rock star and I thought that would be hard especially with no talent!

  • Well, she has a point. It was hard to write in third grade, but by sixth grade it was pretty easy to pen A,B,C,—-oh, wait a minute–that’s not what you MEAN by writing??
    Thanks, from angst central.

  • Cindy A Link

    In response to Roxanne — I, too, know someone who quit his job to write a book. He was certain that his novel was so fabulous that a seven-figure deal was just around the corner. He then joined my critique group. His writing was so horrible that we had a hard time finding something positive to say. He is not on the bestseller list, and if life is fair, he never will be.

    I’m keeping my day job!

  • I’ve heard a similar quote as MK, something along the lines of, “Writing is easy, you just open a vein and bleed.”

  • Craig Link

    It may be just about time for you to open up that restaurant Ruth

  • barbara Link

    People say dumb things. They don’t really deserve rath. Sometimes it’s just not knowing what to say. Tolerance is a good thing. No job well done is easy. No job. Some excel and some fail. But, that said snobbiness can be found everywhere, and especially on comment boards.

  • I’m glad I’ve never wanted to write for a living. However, I did own a restaurant once. The stories I could tell.

  • For years I’ve been a corporate trainer and technical writer. I get paid far more to teach than to write. But for me, the writing is much more difficult.

    Nickelback sings a song, “Well we all just wanna be big rock stars and driving 15 cars..”

    My middle son said, “Mom, I know what I want to be when I grow up. A billionaire.”

    Good plan.

  • Steve Link

    Speaking how hard writing is, here’s an amazing 2003 New Yorker piece by Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabisbuit and Unbroken:

    She is on my mind because I just finished Unbroken, which is a terrific read.

  • Very funny. When I tell people I’m a travel writer, often one of the first things they say is that they’d love to be a travel writer because it sounds so fun, writing and traveling; what could be better. And I tell them, “It’s a lot of work.” I don’t think they get it.

  • Writing, relaxing;no I don’t think so. Broke. Yes. You are right about being alone too. You did a great job writing this blog. You tell it like it is.

  • This was brilliant. As a fellow writer/blogger, there is nothing more difficult than to sit and write, keep you confidence up enough to persuade someone to publish you work and then actually believe people want to read your work. I cannot think of a more difficult field. Thank you for your honesty and for continuing to share your work, it is appreciated and very well liked!

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