“Be Proud, Be Brave, Aspire!”

Explaining how I was waiting for a break with my writing career, my therapist responded by making a convincing case for why I should learn to be content with aspiration. His reasoning was that there was something noble and honorable in aspiring, because it bore the hallmarks of a successful mindset. In other words, aspiring equaled success. I saw it otherwise. More specifically and acutely, I was conflicted over the idea of feeling undefined and unfulfilled because I straddle two careers. Why should I merely aspire to the most rewarding of those careers (writing)?

Aspiring is meant to be a more generous word than struggling, though it has a freight of unpopular associations. For a very long time, I took offense at the phrase aspiring writer as if it was an epithet. If I don’t want to call myself this, it’s because it implies that struggle and strife. Besides, I don’t struggle at writing anymore, really, I struggle primarily with getting work published.

On the other hand, I have learned how to make a decent living in a profession that I enjoy, architecture. Rather, I have settled somewhat restlessly into this profession that I don’t want to define me. But with this career that essentially supports my writing, it can seem like I’m in a holding pattern as I wait for a break in my writing. Of course, in the meantime, I squeeze in writing when I can–the process can often feel Sisyphean–while I try to maintain a mortgage and help raise a two year old. Thus my alternative and ideal, to make a living as a writer, can at times seem elusive.

I’ve had to make peace with my ambivalence. In fact, when I doubted I could ever be financially secure as a writer, I also decided that I was lucky to have fall back options. Although, looking at it another way, I can also see it as a tendency to not commit to the income career because my heart is more into my writing.

This notion of having two careers may be a recent one, a product of our socioeconomic times, with the rise of aspirational artists among the worker class. It certainly creates a dilemma on one’s Linked-in page; you’d think that some entrepreneurial techie would have addressed the situation by now. At times it can seem I’m misrepresenting myself in my public presence. As such, I’m frequently torn: present myself as a writer, or an architect?

I’ve often thought of the dual nature of my creative work as utilizing both sides of my brain. Architecture is so frequently concept and technique driven, that I find most design problems rewarding and challenging. Architecture is composed of spaces and measures, rarely hindered by words. When I spend hours working through a particularly complicated design problem, sometimes it’s refreshing to switch off and go to the words.

Architecture is wonderful, really–it’s just that I would prefer writing, more. I say all of this as someone who has pursued work with the idea that you should do work you love. At the very least, like. This was the pact I made early on in my work life. I was going to do work I liked; loved if possible. Surprisingly, I have actually come to enjoy architecture more now than when I started over two decades ago. This is how I support my writing. This is the reckoning I have made–the compromise–for maintaining a writing life.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be free of this conflict. Because architecture has proven lucrative, even convenient–writing has become relegated to an avocation. I always think that those who do make a living at writing must be lucky, or have established teaching credentials in academia which give them legitimacy as writers. I often believe that my situation–being identified frequently in a career unrelated to writing–does not give me legitimacy as a writer.

When it comes to writing, I sometimes feel I am only allowed to aspire. I don’t have a model for this way of having a writing career, or what models I do have involve extremely unrealistic expectations. I’ve often wondered if my problem lies in not having the courage to pursue my writing full time. Part of this is expectations upon me regarding support of a family, and another is that in order to write the way I would want, there are too many factors outside of my control. I can’t expect I’m going to sell enough books to make a decent income. And yet, isn’t this the concern of career writers, also? To have a career as a commercial writer isn’t where I see myself, either. Some of the choices I would have to make would be too challenging and risky. I’m not young and free anymore. Perhaps I could have risked more when I was younger, but even then I don’t feel that I was able to break in. Yet I hate to think I’m merely playing it safe as I acknowledge that I might never have the opportunities that many of my peers have.

This work can get lonely, particularly when I don’t have a writing community backing me up. I have a sporadic one cultivated in fits and starts. Outside of the social networking available on the web, I don’t see myself fitting in to these literary communities. As I’ve not made any headway there, I’ve stopped seeing it as essential to my growth as a writer. Before I had recognized my status in limbo writer land, I think I hoped for that embrace of the community; now, I’m not so sure I even have time for it.

For all of my sense of feeling excluded, I’ve also never wanted to pursue my work in what I think of as the tradition that so many writers already have. This would be through teaching. Early on, I did not think I could be a teacher, and so avoided taking this path. Would I feel less of this internal conflict if I was teaching? My thought is that at least I’d be immersed in the world of writing, but this doesn’t mean I’d necessarily be writing more or better. After all, I’ve heard of writers complaining about student coursework loads, the long hours reading work that is not your own.

My sense of my difference, and my need to be different, also leads me to a road less traveled. Maybe in my own mind I only imagine the traditional route as less fulfilling, but this might be a component of my restless creative drive.

**

One thing I am slowly coming to terms with is my extremely idealized, and perhaps romantic, notion of the writer’s life. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to hang out with other writers I considered successful in the way I wished to be. When I say successful, I mean they’ve managed to make writing their central career preoccupation, with possibly teaching as their regular income. In some cases, they’ve managed a successful production of books so that they may not even have to teach.

A well-known Bay Area writer I met–he was a mentor to my grad school advisor—was gracious to talk to me after I mentioned our mutual acquaintance. After I also acknowledged his enviable indie cult credentials, he lamented this status. To my mind, his handful of well published titles was an admirable legacy, but he complained that publishers regularly passed him over faster than Polonium-210.

On another instance, through an acquaintance I met at a writing conference in Thailand who gave a reading at City Lights Books, I found myself at a dinner table in House of Nanking with five successful writers. I at once felt welcomed because of this acquaintance, but also quietly envious. How had I not found myself in their position when it had so long been a dream of mine? I recall the comedy as they haggled over the dinner bill–an amount I knew would have us all in at about twenty bucks a person. Initially, it amused me, and reminded me that I wasn’t in the least concerned about whether I could afford dinner or not. Yet I didn’t just have a book reviewed in The New York Times, either.

I know I should not envy these writers. One of the earliest lessons I got from persevering against all odds was to recognize that envy can be a particularly virulent emotion, the kind to induce a miserable writer’s block. I don’t know if they were worrying about a twenty dollar meal. Perhaps their haggling over the bill was really just their attempt to impress each other. Maybe I was seeing them through my own ideological lens. Some among them have had exceptional success and frankly, luck, and some are probably enmeshed in the kind of politics one is involved in as a teaching professional. One of the writers there would eventually write a best-selling children’s book that would go on to sell millions. And one of them has an established profession that might in some way inform much of his fiction. It’s rather that I notice he’s well known for his fiction, which casts a shadow over his profession.

What these anecdotes have suggested to me are the possible illusions I have about the writing life. Some of those writers whom I would call successful, probably just see themselves struggling, possibly plagued by self-doubt–each in their own way–like anyone else.

Realistically, I could be published like these writers and I’m probably not going to suddenly give up work I’ve been getting paid well for. Besides, I now have larger financial constraints that require better security than I’m likely to find with writing. But this gets into the kinds of beliefs I might have, and tell myself, that have no basis in reality.

Now that I have a child, I spend even less time than I would like writing. I expect (and pray) that this will change as she gets older. I’m fortunate to have a partner who has let me continue with the work arrangement that allows me to not fully preoccupy my day with architecture. For the last ten years or so, it has in fact been a part time job. To many who do not have this arrangement, my situation might sound cushier than it actually is. However, working irregular hours as a consultant in architecture means I’m the front line for dealing with much of the day to day transitioning with our child and daycare. If I’m lucky, I might get the occasional hour to work on my writing during the day. Still, there’s never enough time to finish a novel it seems, or to take on a longer writing project. Rather, there’s never a convenient time to take such projects on. I have leaned toward shorter forms: blog posts, flash fiction. I have been working on a novel for the past five years. Just to get an hour or so in, I get up very early in the morning to start writing.

Sometimes, I long for the days when I made a heroic pass as a struggling artist. I worked part time in a café, crafting espressos and padding my pockets with soft cash from the tip jar. I used every bit of my spare time at this job either writing, or thinking about writing, developing a firm grip on my aspirations. As bohemian and ideal as this seemed, it actually put constraints on my ability to have a writing life, not to mention how it challenged my upward mobility. You can only eat so much ramen and hot sauce in the middle of winter in Chicago before reality takes a bite.

The majority of writers perhaps have to confront some trade-off when it comes to a career. Artists are the one group of which it is assumed they are not necessarily able to live off their art. Few of them are lucky enough to make income from their creations. There’s no stigma, it seems, in many other arts, when it comes to making a living in another field. Why not for writers? Since I see myself in this stigmatized category, writing feels so much like an identity for me. I can’t imagine another. I think of great writers who made successful careers and wrote in their spare time. I’m not talking here writers’ first jobs before they got a lucky break, but writers who were enmeshed in a profession other than writing: Anton Chekov, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens. Who knows if they made any grudging compromise about their identity. Perhaps they were fortunate to enjoy their work, and were content to diligently pursue their writing as the art that it truly was for them.

**

The person who comes to writing late in life, and wants to make it more than a vocation, has to contemplate how and if to exit an established career to write full time. More likely, they have to decide if they can. What goes along with this is the notion of being brave enough to make a leap. I have already done so many of the things that indicate my seriousness and commitment to my craft that I don’t know what more of a leap I can take. Maybe having a career that supports my writing means I should stop worrying about getting the break that will change everything.

I got started at writing later than I had hoped, largely because I wasn’t sure I could be a writer. Nearly two decades ago, in the first flush of these aspirations, I found a critique group that tore apart my work–perhaps justifiably so. Though their public shaming—or at least, what felt like it at the time–encouraged me to become more diligent, it was something of a pipe dream that I would ever be a writer. I never thought to give up my career–working in that café was my brief flirtation with the idea–not long after, I crawled back to my profession.

Thus, well along in my architecture career, I decided to return to school in 2003 to pursue my MFA. I saw it as a decisive step toward nurturing the craft of my writing. For my family, getting another degree was mainly considered in terms of getting a job. They often asked me, “What kind of job can you get with a creative writing degree?” I never deigned to give a satisfactory answer. After all, that wasn’t why I went for the degree.

Practicality is something that I hear from my father, who hails from a generation that seems only to see work as a means to an end. “Why not take up writing when you retire?” he used to say before he saw my writing published. He frequently missed the point of my being driven and striving because I have to: because I want to write now.

When I have my darkest doubts, sometimes it can seem that the longer I toggle between two careers, the less likely I will achieve my dreams with writing. I know this is largely a perception issue, but it’s one that occasionally dogs me. There are certain benchmarks I think might be out of reach, the further I am entrenched in a profession that is not about writing. On a good day, I think how lucky I am to be able to write and have a creative career. And yet, because of the path I’ve taken, at times there’s no clear sense that I’m achieving what I imagined or dreamed with my writing. Maybe a realistic way of saying it is that I’m achieving what I might not have imagined, and yet some of the dream has been put aside for practicality.

In truth, I made a decision to be free in my creativity–really as totally free as I could imagine. In some way, the only limitation is time. Maybe this pressure has created its own constraints. There’s no one challenging what I write in the time I have to write–I’m the final arbiter, not prey to pleasing anyone, to having no outside expectations. Mostly I write what I want; it’s up to an editor to decide if they want it. This may make it more difficult for me, because the challenges I come up against are self-created, and come from a long and serious practice.

I’ve made decent strides in publishing, and I constantly find rewarding challenges in my writing; there are probably many aspiring writers who would envy even my modest position. In spite of all of this, no matter what I achieve, I’m never quite satisfied.

Does the world care that yet another writer faces doubt and uncertainty from a lack of acknowledgement? I should stress that I’ve worked very hard to get where I am, and I’ve never once expected rewards to be handed to me. I know I’m not alone. I’m guessing there are a lot of writers in similar circumstances. They get by in whatever way they can, facing daunting odds and occasional crippling indifference from those they might look to for helping them achieve their goals. These writers are not who we read about in the media–we only see the success stories.

As time goes on and I build up my publishing credentials, much of this ambivalent struggle becomes less important to me. I think back to my friend’s advice about the honor of aspirations. I settle into the long view, which means, more or less, aspire, because I can never really expect anything, however much I might want it. And with the small cumulative successes, it becomes easier to rationalize that I’m doing it in one of many ways. I do wonder sometimes, what it would take to really have writing front and center, as my career–not merely as the thing I’m grateful to pursue when I can. I try not to dwell on this too much. I don’t give up–mainly because I cannot, I have to write, which is the very definition of aspiring.

About Robert Detman

Robert Detman is the author of the novel Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas (Figureground Press 2014). He has published fiction in the Antioch Review, Akashic Books, Superstition Review, Spork Press, Decomp, and numerous other journals. His story collection, The Survivor's Guide, was a semifinalist for the 2013 Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press. More info: robertmdetman.com



  • G. D. McFetridge

    Robert old sport, you write well but I am going to cut to the chase. Chances of you ever making it as a “successful fiction writer,” and when I say successful I largely mean money-wise because that is the bedrock measure in our culture, are about the same as pulling a winning lottery ticket. If we think in terms of wanting to be a world-class sprinter, the task ahead is black and white. You train, you enter races, and you either win or don’t win. If you were able to run a 100-meter dash 1/10 of a second faster than anyone else on the planet, then you would be the champ. Simple, because there is no subjectivity involved in a foot race. In contrast, the process by which one gets recognition as a writer is fraught with subjectivity, from the twit intern who first reads your submission all the way thru to the head editor of the publishing company, and then of course the reading public at large. At any one point along the way in this gantlet of evaluation your opus major can get shot down the toilet, even if from some grand cosmic objectivity it may be deemed as a master work. Think of Van Gogh. For chrissake the poor bastard was often dismissed and never had two nickles to rub together, yet now his paintings sell for tens of millions. What does that tells us about subjectivity at any given point in history? So … in the world of being caught in the “gaze of the other,” (Sartre’s phrase) how does one get around the problem of subjectivity? You either come up with a magical work (a quantum phenomenon perhaps) that somehow captivates everyone along the line including the public, or you keep buying literary lottery tickets from now until hell freezes or you figure out how to put the fix in. Yes, the fix. You cozy up with someone higher up on the literary food chain than yourself and get them to pull strings. Kerouac wouldn’t have made it without Malcolm Cowley, Hemingway might not have had the luck he had sans F. Scot putting the word in for him, Raymond Carver owed his inside ticket to the editor at “Harper’s” … uh, I can’t think of his name right now, but in any case, the list goes long and deep. As far as I’m concerned, the lion’s share of recent novels (the last 20 years) as well as short fiction I’ve read, is painfully lacking if not flat out bullshit, but it’s out there, it’s published and people are making bucks. Were I the guardian of the literary gate, I guarantee a whole lot of name writers would be out of work! But I’m not and someone else is, and therein lies the rub, at least from my subjective POV. Enough said, I need to harvest string beans from my garden. Good luck, G. D. McFetridge

  • winfred

    Greetings!
    I happened upon your article. I just would like to say that your writing locked me in! I was searching for info in another subject and dropped all of that to read your story. You are a wordsmith! Maybe the “career” aspect of things gets in the way, yet maybe not now as you have several titles and published in highly acclaimed publications. Your sentences roll along so nicely. I’m book marking this so I can come back and read it again. I didn’t fit in with a couple of writers groups once I moved into a big city from a rural area. There is a literary community here, yet I have no idea how one becomes accepted. I suppose it means publishing and winning awards. Even if I am ever published and I qualify for the literary community it probably will not make any difference to me. Your article is interesting in that I can identify with your struggle that you articulate so well. It was like you were in the room speaking to me. Thanks for sharing!

    Carpe Diem!
    Winfred