We all do stupid things from time to time, yet years ago I decided to revolve my life around one of them. You see, I have chosen the single most masochistic, cruel, and unforgiving career path imaginable.
I suppose there are worse decisions. Scraping up elephant dung at the circus seems rather thankless, as does low-end streetwalking type prostitution. But, in many ways, I have decided to both toil in filth and whore myself.
What was this idiotic decision?
I became a writer.
For most people, this brings to mind images of Stephen King or John Grisham at a book signing, smoking thousand dollar cigars or wiping their ass with hundred dollar bills. Maybe you’re a fan of the show “Castle” and imagine a rich playboy like Nathan Fillion’s title character jet setting with the ladies between short bouts of pounding out prose on his keyboard. Ah, if only…
The truth is that the written word will likely never make me rich. Hell, the written word may never even pay my rent. David Morrell (the author of First Blood and a dozen other bestellers) once said that, by his count, there are less than 300 people in this country making their living solely from writing. For you history buffs, that’s the same number of Spartans who died at Thermopylae. I’ll let you ponder that comparison on your own.
Now, I’m not sure what type of writers he meant. I’m assuming he meant fiction writers. That number likely inflates if you add journalists and screenwriters into the mix. It may triple, even quadruple, but that’s still a pathetically low number of folks who can manage to write and only write. Dan Simmons, another bestselling author, said in his “Writing Well” series that more people play professional baseball than make a living from writing. Think about that for awhile. How hard is it to make it to a pro sports team? How many star high school and college athletes realize that they just aren’t good enough? How many get crippled by dream-smashing injuries? It’s impossible to count.
So how in the hell does anyone think they can write?
Screenwriter Josh Olsen was raked over the coals for his piece “I Will Not Read Your Script.” It was a very Harlan Ellison-esque diatribe against all the wanna-be’s who shove horrible screenplays into his face everyday and then tell him that he’s an asshole for giving them actual constructive feedback (rather than the “It’s genius!” they felt they deserved). The internet, that bastion of professionalism and maturity, came down hard on him for not wanting to do it anymore. The prevailing idea is that simply by proclaiming “I’m a writer” and scrawling a few horrendous poems in a journal or scratching out some infantile short stories earns someone the right to say they’re a writer. What Olsen and others like him are saying is, “No. You do not have that right. Until you respect the craft enough to strap yourself to a chair and not get up for hours a day, every day, for YEARS as you edit, critique, and learn about your writing and how to make it better, then you do not have the right to join our ranks.”
Why does everyone in this country feel so entitled to instant gratification, to have their wishes bestowed on them simply because they exist? This is what came of an entire generation of children being told they were “special.” We are not unique snowflakes. I would love to be the UFC Light-Heavyweight Champion. Shouldn’t Shogun and Rampage and all the other athletes who have devoted their lives to training for the sport just step aside and give me the title?
I think it was Faulkner who, when told by a doctor at a party that the man was going to write a novel when he retired, replied “Really? I’m going to perform surgery when I retire.”
Everyone thinks they can write, likely because we all do it at some level day in and day out. We write emails, we write reports, we tell stories to our friends. But making the leap in logic from that level to being able to write a novel (let alone a publishable one) is akin to someone who runs to his car in the rain thinking they can be an Olympic sprinter. William Zinsser said it best in his 1998 book On Writing Well:
Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people obviously think it does. The professional writer is forever being bearded by strangers who say that they’d like to “try a little writing sometime” when they retire from their real profession. Or they say, “I could write a book about that.” I doubt it.
Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this as a consolation in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do.
I have so much respect for those writers who have honed their craft to the highest levels, too much respect to even begin to fantasize about being their equal. I’ve been writing since I was eight years old and know that I have a long, long way to go before I’m finished. To me it’s as much about the journey as anything. It’s about working hard and being critical of that work, of tearing myself apart day in and day out in an effort to improve, to be the best that I can be. I know I keep throwing out sports comparisons, but it really is the closest thing I’ve experienced. When I was an amateur fighter, we conditioned and strength-trained and worked on technique and conditioned more. Only after thousands of hours of this could we step into the ring – and that’s where the real education began.
I mention all of this because, here in Los Angeles especially, there are so many wanna-be writers who feel entitled to multi-million dollar movie deals or contracts with a major publisher simply because… well, because. But who actually wants to put in the hard work? Very few.
(My favorite kind of “writer” in Los Angeles is the out-of-work actor who considers himself a writer because he’s been working on a single screenplay for the past five years. Newsflash: if you have been working on one project and one project alone for five years, especially something as short and simple as a screenplay, you are probably not a writer. Exceptions exist to this, obviously, but I doubt you’re one of them.)
There is no substitute for hard work. To go back to the professional sports analogy one more time (even I’m getting bored with it), imagine someone like Michael Jordan for a moment. Did talent alone get him where he was? No. There are thousands of talented ball players out there. What caused this single one to excel to a point where his very name is inseperable from the sport was that he busted his ass. Day and night, young Jordan shot hoops and ran drills and worked on his game. He ate, breathed, and slept basketball. Even after he became a superstar, his teammates never talked about his talent. They talked about his work ethic. His willingness to accept that he had weaknesses. His drive to continue improving. That’s what made Jordan great. It’s what made Ali great. It’s also what made Hemingway and Fitzgerald and King and Rowling and Goldman and Tarantino great. Writing is a long, hard, and fulfilling journey. It’s Mount Meru and, while I may never reach the peak, I will not settle for just hanging out at the base; I want to see what those Snow Leopards look like.
Do you want to write? Can you put aside your Ego? Or, better yet, can you strap your Ego down to a hill of fireants in the baking desert sun while its flesh is both burnt beyond recognition and eaten away in sharp, stinging chunks and then, when it starts screaming for mercy, laugh and piss in its face? If you can be that brutal with yourself you may have what it takes to set foot on the path.
What we do isn’t rocket science. We don’t save lives. Most of us don’t even enlighten or illuminate, nor do we intend to. But this is one of the hardest professions out there and we do what it takes to become the best writers we can be. Whether you’re a writer or a reader, you should respect that. Next time you pick up a novel think about how many years of the author’s life went into it. Not just the one or two years spent writing it, but the years spent honing their craft to a level that they could write it and have it be readable or, God forbid, actually good.
Sit long enough outside the Shaolin Temple and one of the masters may just teach you a thing or two. But, trust me, if you try to break in they will hand your ass to you.
In bloody little bits.
And so we come back to the title: why am I an idiot?
Point the First: for thinking that I can write to begin with.
Point the Second: for devoting my life to such a thankless, pitiless, difficult pursuit.
I am definitely an idiot.
And I’m proud as hell to be one.
Brad C. Hodson is a writer living in Los Angeles. His stories have appeared in anthologies alongside Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, George RR Martin, and many more of his literary heroes. For a listing of his literary and film work, please check out his Bibliography at https://brad-hodson.com/bibliography/