Let’s start with a confession: I’ve been discouraged lately. Not just because I wrecked my car, or because I have awful PMS, or because my job has me encountering poop more often than a proctologist moonlighting as a zookeeper. It’s the socially-conditioned things that have me down–assumptions I and many others hold about what it takes to be a successful writer. I suspect I’m not the only one who flounders amid these sorts of defeatist attitudes. That’s why I’m about to br-br-break ’em down.
Discouraged Thought #1: “I’m Too Poor.”
Unless you grew up in the socioeconomic sub-basement, this concern may not have occurred to you. If you’re broke, though, it almost certainly has. I think about it far more often than I should. (Then again, I’m the most neurotic poor person I know. I can’t even find out about a rich person third-hand without wanting to start the revolution. Whenever I end up in the same room as someone with more money with me, I either scream, flee, or attempt to blend in by asking questions like: “Used any good bidets lately?”)
The problem is, the idea that a writer has to be a moneyed person of leisure has a historical basis. In the grand scheme of things, the vast majority of successful authors have been born wealthy. From the Classical Era to the Age of Enlightenment, every writer–hell, every literate person–was either a noble or someone with a noble patron. Even as the aristocratic system slid into irrelevancy, poor people had a hard time getting a leg up in the literary world. When I picture “Famous Authors,” I see Wilde or Baudelaire or Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I see Byron and Shelley faffing about in a summer cottage, writing poetry and drinking alcohol and emphatically not doing any labor. It had to be that way. What poor person had time to write?
That’s changing, of course. Not in a deluded, ultra-American “income inequality is over!” kind of way. It’s simply a function of rising literacy at all levels of society. That’s not to say a poor person won’t have to work absolutely harder than a rich person to achieve their literary dreams–poor people have to work harder at pretty much everything. But those dreams aren’t quite as out-of-reach as they would have been in previous centuries.
Some successful writers who started out broke:
- Stephen King
The son of a single mother. Worked in a laundromat, then as a teacher.
- J.K. Rowling
Single mother on the dole when she wrote Harry Potter.
- Sandra Cisneros
One of six kids in a constantly migrating family without enough cash to go around.
- George Orwell
Couldn’t afford to attend college and didn’t achieve literary success until age 41.
- Charles Dickens
Dad was a perpetual debtor. Charlie had to quit school to work 10-hour shifts in a boot factory.
Discouraged Thought #2: “I Have Mental Illness.”
People joke about depressed writers and psychotic artists. Sometimes, a damaged psyche is even seen as a pre-requisite for creativity. Let’s be real, though: it’s a lot harder to achieve anything when your chemicals are set against you. People with mental illness graduate college in lower numbers then people without, have a rougher time holding down full-time jobs, and often fear to dream big. Sometimes, it can be helpful for them to remember that they’re in good company.
- Sylvia Plath
First became depressed in college, endured round after round of electroshock therapy.
- Ezra Pound
Diagnosed with both Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Schizophrenia in his lifetime, though it’s hard to know exactly how accurate these diagnoses were. Spent 13 years in an institution.
- Leo Tolstoy
Became depressed in middle aged. Had a tendency toward rumination.
- Virginia Woolf
Suffered from depression, migraines, and hallucinations.
- Ernest Hemingway
You name it, he had–depression, bipolar, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, psychosis. These disorders ran in the Hemingway family.
Discouraged Thought #3: “I’m Too Old.”
The average age of a first-time published novelist is 36. That ought to be of some comfort to all the insecure twenty-somethings (like myself) who lament that they just aren’t getting anywhere in their chosen profession. But even if you’re past that average, you’re far from alone.
Here are some authors who found success later in life.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder
Published Little House in the Big Woods when she was 64.
- William S. Burroughs
Published The Naked Lunch when he was 46.
- Raymond Chandler
Published The Big Sleep when he was 51.
- George Eliot
Published Middlemarch when she was 55.
- Anthony Burgess
Published A Clockwork Orange when he was 45.
- Marquis de Sade
Published Justine when he was 46. Presumably, he was too busy with kinky shenanigans up till then. (That, and the 32 years spent in prisons and asylums–but never mind.)
Discouraged Thought #4: “I’ve Been Rejected Too Many Times.”
Look, I’m not even going to dissect this one. Instead, I’ll direct you to this site, which features a comprehensive list of all the famous authors who were turned down a butt-billion times. My friend Deb sent it to me when I was feeling down. (Hi, Deb!)
Here are some of my favorites.
- Agatha Christie
Spent five years drowning in endless rejections. Now outsells everyone except William Shakespeare.
- Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years,” said a publisher. Nabokov eventually landed a deal with Olympia Press.
- The Diary of Anne Frank
It seems unbelievable now, but one critic wrote of the famous diary: “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.” Anne Frank’s work was rejected 15 times.
- George Orwell, Animal Farm
T.S. Eliot rejected the book from Faber and Faber because of its “Trotskyite politics.”
- Joseph Heller, Catch-22
“I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” So said some complete dip-shit about one of the funniest books ever written.
- Frank Herbert, Dune
Rejected 23 times, went on to become the best-selling science fiction book of all time.