When I was a child I wanted to be a pilot. At the age of six I boarded a plane and caught a glimpse of the cockpit, with all those wonderful dials, buttons and knobs. The captain stood in the doorway, a stunning figure in his white pressed uniform and navy blue cap, ready to whisk us away on a far-flung journey. Yes, that was the life for me. In hindsight perhaps I should have listened to my instincts.
Instead I took the long, miserable path of a writer. I had no idea at the time that dedicating my life to writing would mean forsaking nearly everything most people take for granted. Money, security and even love would have to wait a very long time, if not forever. Instead I took on a lifestyle of poverty, uncertainty, rejection and at the same time, the ultimate freedom; the freedom to live a life outside the expectations of society.
I’ve lived an interesting life on a shoestring, but I still have to wonder what life might be like if I suddenly made it big. Would I be any different? When Jack Kerouac finished writing On The Road, he carried the manuscript around with him in a knapsack for six years, unable to find a publisher. In the meantime he cranked out several other books, none of which sold. Just like me, he lived on the brink of starvation, working odd jobs and struggling to survive. It wasn’t until his good friend, the poet Allen Ginsburg, implored a publisher to look at On The Road that it finally saw the light of day and went on to become a classic of 20th century literature. During those six years, was Kerouac any less of a literary master? Of course not. But was he treated like one? Absolutely not. He was treated like the bum that everyone thought he must be. Afterwards he was lavished with praise, featured on radio and TV broadcasts and all of his other works were quickly snapped up.
It must be mentioned, however, that publishing success did not bring Kerouac happiness. After the world finally discovered him, he moved home with his mother and drank himself to death by the age of 47. And here lies perhaps the most important lesson of all for a struggling writer. The writing itself must be its own reward. You have to do it because you can’t live without doing it. Because it gives you a reason to exist.
In the 20 years since I made my fateful decision to write I’ve had no home of my own and no job I could stand to keep for more than a year. I lived under dark clouds of debt, afraid to spend any money at all and constantly worrying about my future. While all of my friends slowly moved ahead, buying homes and new cars, starting families and saving for retirement, I merely got older and broker. But do I have any regrets? No. Not really. Disappointments, perhaps, but not regrets.
But why exactly have I put myself through the misery, one might ask? Because I simply can’t help it. Once I started writing I could not stop and probably never will. Of course there are the obvious goals of fame and wealth, but if those were my only motivations I would have given up long ago and moved on to something else. There is also the goal of immortality. The desire to write something that will last. That will live on after you are gone and give your life meaning. This is a strong draw for most writers. We are all desperate to add some meaning to our lives, and we think we have something to say, even though most books go out of print within a year.
A third and even more practical reason to pursue a career in writing is the desire to travel the world, work on your own terms and never punch a clock. Never sit in a corporate office and use your brainpower for someone else’s gain. Never let your soul be sucked dry by a job you hate, but embrace life and the joys and the sorrows of living. A writer wakes up when he feels like it, works when he feels like it, and never leaves the house if he doesn’t want to. To many people this sounds like Nirvana. No boss, no alarm clocks, no office politics, no overtime.
The flipside to this existence is that it all of the sitting around and thinking can drive one utterly mad. Lounging around the house in your pajamas all day thinking is not psychologically healthy. There is simply way too much to obsess about. Financial concerns, no doubt, but also the terrible guilt that what you are writing is not good enough, or that you are not accomplishing enough at all. Getting out of the house can help. Getting out of town is even better. It allows one to clear one’s head and recharge one’s creative batteries.
Somehow I have managed to travel the world on so little money, even I don’t know how I did it. An Australian friend once told me, “You could live off the fumes of an oily rag.” Of course, I took that as a compliment. I may be dirt poor, but I’ve lived a life rich with experience. This experience is the substance from which novels are made. I think back to days working on a cable ship in the middle of the Pacific and watching whales swim past my porthole. I remember a Tahitian boy treating me to mangos and warm soda at his ramshackle home on a remote island. I remember late nights in Eastern Europe, driving around in a tiny car crammed with locals and feeling like I belonged.
Traveling also makes it easier to see the world around you with eyes wide open, because even the mundane in one person’s world can be vastly intriguing to another. And upon returning home, the traveler has a whole new perspective on what might have seemed mundane beforehand. Suddenly he notices things about people and perceptions, and even the style of the buildings in his neighborhood and the weather on an average spring day that he might have completely dismissed beforehand.
Making these observations and sharing them with the rest of the world is what writing is all about, after all. And nothing lifts the spirits of a writer better than a good day’s work. Sometimes when I’m down I know that the only thing that will make me feel better is a productive day. And when I know my work is going well, nothing can get me down. When my writing is good, life is good.
I heard someone once say that a successful writer is a mediocre writer with persistence. I’ve always figured that if this were really true, I’d have a lock on it. Twenty years with hardly a paycheck is awfully persistent. Of course, perhaps I’m not mediocre enough. Whatever the case may be, twenty years as a starving artist has been an interesting ride.