A few years ago, I posted an April Fool’s blog post about how I was quitting writing and moving to Guam. It was a lie, but there’s something at the root of that which I think needs to be explored.
Being a writer while coincidentally being a young person can be one of the most discouraging things to be in the United States. Did you major in English? People consider it to be a worthless degree. Are you getting an MFA? Writers without them and some English professors in academia will label you pretentious. And don’t even think about publishing — everyone knows about the inevitable heat death of print media. Plus you’re a woman. Plus you have a weird last name. Plus you write some kind of genre fiction (or worse, poetry).
And you can’t really count on academia to be your refuge, either. Undergraduate classes are being taught more and more by under-payed adjuncts and teaching assistants, and the number of tenure track positions dwindles on the daily. You may land a teaching job as an adjunct, but at $750 a course (an actual number I saw from an adjunct via Facebook in a discussion today), is it really even worth it?
Basically, the message to young writers goes, “You can give up on your dreams now. I hear they have cookies if you take the LSAT and get a real job.”
That’s what we (the collective of people in society/the internet) send out to young people about being a writer and about pursuing any level of education within the liberal arts beyond the bachelor’s degree. There is no point to it, because you will not make any money and you will not be happy, and you will die alone and miserable and probably drunk on cheap red wine.
On top of that, I’ve been struggling with what kind of stuff (yes, I just said “what kind of stuff”) I want to write. People ask me that question, too. “So what kind of stuff do you write?” The question makes me feel miserable, because honestly, I don’t always know. I have one clear, precise vision of what I write and why I write it: I write characters whose voices have been stifled overcoming the oppressions that have kept them down in order to help people who have been oppressed to find their own strength. It’s like the mission statement of my life. Always give a voice to the voiceless.
But beyond that, I’m kind of stuck. I like to read SF, but I don’t think I’m good at writing SF. I’m good at writing teenagers, but I don’t want to be labeled YA. I like to write Portuguese and Spanish characters, but I don’t want to only write Portuguese and Spanish characters, but if I don’t write Luso characters, am I a traitor to the whole Luso group? I’m frustrated with this story I started about a swimmer that has only grown more difficult to understand. I want to write something more speculative, but everything I turn out is boring. I can’t write short stories, I can’t write novels, I can’t write anything. This is how it feels inside of my head on a fairly regular basis.
So I try to take a break, take a breath, do some Tai Chi, and get back to what’s important. A voice to the voiceless.
How do you even do that? Especially when most people start to look at you askance when you begin to explain why you do what you do. Even some other writers I know have given me the look. You might know the look, the one that says to that person, your goals are nice but will never happen, and why don’t you get a real job or a teaching certificate instead? A voice to the voiceless…
The existential angst of it all — knowing that MFA degrees are expensive and give you no extra guarantee that you will be able to make a living wage with your work, knowing that women writers and writers of color are overwhelmingly underrepresented in publishing, knowing that most people consider what do to be a futile waste of time — has been getting to me lately. It’s almost enough to make one want to quit writing.
Almost, but not quite. I couldn’t quit writing any more than I could quit being a follower of Jesus… Both are integral to my soul.
Instead, I’m asking those older than me, those who have more clout than I do, to stop telling writers who are coincidentally young that writing is not a profitable career. It’s competitive, yes. Publishing is sexist, yes. Publishing is racist, yes. Most writers will probably not become mega bestsellers like Dean Koontz or Danielle Steele (but who would really want to be??? blech, those writers are awful), but that does not mean it is impossible and improbable to make a living writing. There are obstacles, yes, but there are obstacles to everything.
Instead of everyone getting all panicky and finger-pointing and grumpy about how hard it is to be a writer, or how useless it is to be a writer, or how financially risky it is to be a writer, can we all just agree to support young writers?
Support young writers, because it is inevitably with our voice that you will be remembered. We tell the stories of our mothers and our fathers, never of our children. Support young writers, because we allow for the narrative of humanity to endure and continue. Support young writers, because young writers have a voice, and all of the hype about how bad it is in publishing and academia is just serving to leave us feeling voiceless.