It shouldn’t be surprising that many successful writers seem to have some sort of compulsion that keeps them at it, or that compulsion seems to be a useful trait. After all, writing doesn’t make much sense economically-only a very small percentage of writers make any serious money at it, not serious as in hedge-fund serious, of course, but serious as in enough to pay the bills and maybe to summer on Cape every other year or so. And writing’s tough; most writers spend an awful lot of time staring at the blank page, waiting, perhaps praying to The Muse or to whomever for an inspiration, or at least a good idea, or any idea at all, for that matter. . .
And yet we do keep at it, and the ability to keep at it – that addiction, perhaps – seems to make all the difference. Talent’s nice, sure, but as Ted Solotaroff puts it so well in “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years,” a wonderful and wonderfully down-beat essay on the writing life and success in it, or the lack thereof:
It doesn’t appear to be a matter of the talent itself – some of the most natural writers, the ones who seemed to shake their prose or poetry out of their sleeves, are among the disappeared. As far as I can tell, the decisive factor is durability. For the gifted writer, durability seems to be directly connected to how one deals with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment, from within as well as from without, and how effectively one incorporates them into the creative process itself…
But whence the durability? The drive? The compulsion?
ALLAN GURGANUS — You know what they say about heroin: the first hit is always free, because the dealer wants to hook you. And I think the same is true of writing, for the chosen ones, and by chosen, maybe I mean singled out for special abuse . . .
DON WALLACE — The turning point for me was my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz. It was a pass/fail program, but still, I almost flunked out. I hated it. I especially hated the English classes. The approach was all wrong. I went to my advisor and asked him what I should do, and he got me into a fiction class taught by Page Stegner.
I was a singer in a rock band, too, so I wrote and played rock and roll. But I did see a notice for a college poetry contest, and I entered some poems. I didn’t win, but I did tie for second with Lawrence Weschler, who was the senior god of lit on campus at the time, and as I walked up to get the prize (which was a very Oxford bottle of sherry) I could see them all thinking: Who is this little punk? Now Weschler has his own institute at New York University. And I’m still a punk, I guess, still an outlier. . .
ROBIN GREEN — I got hooked on the idea of being a writer in high school when the teacher read a funny essay I wrote to the class and everyone laughed. I think I was just better at writing than anyone in my small class, and so I thought of myself that way. Same thing with art class; I was good at it. . . I got a full scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design, but went to Brown instead.
At Brown, in my junior year, I got into John Hawkes’ fiction class with something I’d written. He loved some things I wrote, was critical of others. But the good short stories were very good. I wrote as if taking dictation then, in a blessed sort of state, in a beam. When I tried to write it wasn’t any good. Mostly I copied Hemingway; he was my favorite. He probably still is.
When I was still at Brown, I remember some big-shot editor from The New Yorker had come to visit, and he picked out a story I’d written and he read it in front of 300 people. I was overwhelmed. There I was, having something I’d written being read in front of 300 Christians with blond hair!
SANDRA CISNEROS — . . . I liked to write, but I didn’t know you could be a writer; I knew there were writers, but I hadn’t a clue how they got that way. . . I never knew anyone who was actually a writer. I was a young Mexican-American with no models in my life. I was inventing myself. . .
JANE SMILEY — I didn’t start writing until college, my senior year. I started a novel about the Dostoyevskian lives of Yale students. There was even a tragic automobile accident in it. . . I truly enjoyed writing the novel. I thought I could do this the rest of my life. . . My senior advisor liked it, thought it was impressive for what it was, but he didn’t offer to help me get it published, which turned out to be a good thing, and anyway, the very idea of publishing it was almost incomprehensible to me. Finishing it was enough. I got my degree and I knew what I wanted. I wanted to write.
ALLAN GURGANUS — . . . It seemed that Literature, like sexuality, was a coded language that only I spoke. My goal was finding a conversational partner. And I think Literature provided just that in a way… it felt like there was someone on the other side of the net. Literature itself could create Community even for a man alone. I hollered. Its echo rolled back to me. And when at last I found someone who could really talk Books for hours on end, it literally felt like being saved.