Reflections On the Occasion of a Birthday, or Why I Write

My 30th birthday was two days ago. It ‘s a little unreal; I feel more like a twenty year old than a thirty year old, although since I don’t have much experience yet with what being thirty feels like, I guess that’s a little silly to say. But you usually figure, someone who’s 30, they’re confident and comfortable with who they are, they’re well into their chosen career, maybe they even have a marriage, a house, children. I guess for a long time that was my picture of adulthood. And by the time you’re 30, well– regardless of achievements, it’s tough to dodge being placed in that “adult” category.

Looking back on my twenties, it feels like a large chunk of it was spent trying to obtain those things: a solid job, a house, a stable life. But in retrospect, it wasn’t the right thing to do– or maybe I just did it wrong. Through school and college, I mostly just surfed along, and was able to succeed without putting much thought into things. It’s like I was on a conveyor belt, cruising my way toward graduation or finals or the end of the year, and simply knocking down the obstacles as they came up. After I graduated, I guess I expected life to keep being like that.

For a while, it was. Holding down a regular job is the same sort of “conveyor belt” model: as time proceeds, you complete assignments as they come along, and sort of coast your way through a series of days, which turn into weeks, and into months, and into years. It’s possible to live your whole life that way. A lot of people do, and many of them are happy.

But other things don’t fall so easily into the “Conveyor Belt” model of life. Relationships, for example. I suppose once you’re in one, it feels a bit like a conveyor belt, but the process of meeting someone, of starting a relationship, of falling in love, is in my experience one of the least predictable things ever. Maybe it works differently for some people– in fact, I know it does. Some people I’ve met are able to move from relationship to relationship with hardly a missed step. For me, it’s never worked that way, but that’s a story for a different blog post. Probably a different blog.

When I moved to Seattle, I very deliberately stepped off the conveyor belt of the job. Admittedly, I do still have a job, but it’s part time, I set my own hours, and being a writer shares equal or greater priority with it. And writing, especially before you’re getting paid for it, isn’t a conveyor belt at all. It’s a trail, and a poorly marked one at that. There’s nothing and no one pulling you along. You have to move your own feet, and you better bring a machete, ’cause you’ll be doing a lot of bushwhacking.

If I don’t write, no one will fire me. No one will pull me into a performance meeting and yell at me. I won’t let down my co-workers. The only punishment for not writing is that I don’t get to be a writer… and since this is not an acceptable outcome, I keep doing it.

I tried not being a writer. I tried it for six years. Then, when I grew more and more restless, less and less content, I tried other things. I looked into graduate school. I tried just writing as a hobby. None of it worked. And one day, thinking about this, and all the things I could do with my life, I came to a realization that while I could probably be successful at a lot of things, they would never feel right, because none of those other things were writing.

It took me most of my twenties to realize this. Maybe if I had been more honest with myself, or been more courageous, or not spent a few years’ worth of free time playing WoW, I would have reached that realization sooner. But that’s water (and time) under the bridge; it’s gone, and it’s not coming back. So here I stand, at the start of my fourth decade. I know for sure what I want to do, and it’s goddamn terrifying.

In a way, wanting to be a professional writer is the ultimate conceit. You have to believe that you’re good enough to do it, and that one day you will succeed, even in the face of poor critiques, piles of rejection letters, and plenty of stories of other people’s failures that tell you otherwise. You ignore that nagging voice in your head which tells you that you suck and you’ll never be good enough and you should just quit now. Even when you know for a fact that the story you just wrote is bad, you still have to hold on to that nugget, that belief that you can and you will succeed at this, or all will be lost.

If you let that belief go, if you get discouraged, you’ll stop writing, and then here’s the thing: nothing will happen. You won’t fail out of school. Your boss won’t give you a bad review or fire you. If you’re not making money, the decision won’t cost you anything financially, and heck, you’ll find yourself with a ton of extra free time. But you won’t be writing, and that part of your soul is always going to hurt, and eventually, it will drive you crazy. It’s happened once to me already. I don’t want to waste time letting it happen again.

So here I am. Thirty years old. I’m staring down a long road paved with rejection letters, of years of unpaid practice and work, hoping for a break, hoping that maybe at some point I’ll write something good enough, which when combined with a dose of luck, means I’ll be able to make a living at this thing. And then I’ll do it again. And again. And with each bit of success it will hopefully get easier, but until then, it’s a long, long slog. And all the time, that voice in my head will whisper, You should have a career and a house and a family and be settling down by now, not living in a tiny apartment working a part-time job and putting tons of work into some crazy whim with only marginal hope of success.

Maintaining that level of determination, in the face of a pile of self-doubt and rejection, is the hardest thing I’ve ever done; the thought of doing it for years and years to come is scary as hell. But if the alternative is not being a writer, then I’ll do it.

The next decade is going to be interesting.

3 thoughts on “Reflections On the Occasion of a Birthday, or Why I Write

  1. Perhaps, then, the alternate alternative between the two…find a partner willing to help support your dreams of professional writing?

  2. You’re not crazy. 🙂

    I’m 36, and didn’t write (fiction) for 13 years. But I wrote a lot of other things in that time. Long-winded, strongly worded emails. KB articles. Political blogs. Wikipedia articles. Comments on forums. Non-fiction articles for local rags. Non-fiction websites about cults.

    And when I wasn’t writing, I was doing some other creative hobby, like making chain mail or starting businesses.

    I built a successful IT career, but was always looking for what I was going to be when I grew up. And “Writer” was often on that list. So much so that at the age of 35 I decided to focus on it full time.

    (BTW, you DO know that 30 is the new 20, right? Some say 40 is the new 20. So go easy on yourself. We’ll likely live to 120-400 years old, depending on whose estimates you look at. We have time.)

    The other thing, about the ups and downs, is that they say if you’re not crazy before you start writing, writing will make you so. Everyone talks about the severe highs and lows. That comes with having good taste – necessary for becoming an actually good writer, but also the thing that makes us feel horrible when we write something bad (in our temporary estimation). Those writers who always feel good about what they write, 100% of the time? They don’t have good taste. And I’ve read their work. They suck. They don’t refine anything they do, don’t improve their craft, and continuously churn out crap that they think everyone should read, but no one wants to. P.S. those people don’t think they need to go to critique groups, so they never experience the pain of a bad review by people who actually care about helping them.

    So happy birthday, and congrats on the courage to do this crazy writing thing. Even if the demon inside is forcing you to.

  3. Well, I just turned 31, I own the house, got married, and I still really don’t feel like an adult yet.

    While my shift from full-time to freelancing is not as big of a change as what you are doing, there seem to be lot of aspects that match. A bit of starting over. Being your own boss. Stepping off the normal, accepted route in favor of what feels right. It is kinda scary. But it feels good.

    Happy Birthday.

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