What should I say to a student who wants to give up writing?

A friend of mine posted a variation of this question recently. Most of my friends are obviously teachers and writers. It surprised me then that very few of our mutual friends spoke up with a truer answer for that student, which for me would be something along the lines of Congratulations. Good for you!

There’s something strange about writing in that it’s one of the few fields in which we conflate interest and talent with the ability to hack it as a professional.

A friend of mine makes a mean lentil soup. I mean, this soup is amazing. She’s a fantastic cook in general, but this soup. I dream about this soup. Every time she makes it, I say something like You should open a restaurant. What I mean by that is You should make this soup and invite me over more often. If she actually said, I’m thinking of opening that restaurant. We’re looking at locations soon, I would sit her down with a group of restaurateurs and they would say to her, Are you fucking insane?

Because most restaurants fail. Most restaurants never get into the black. They open, they lose their owners’ life savings, and then they fail. Even those restaurants that make it? Ugh, what kind of life is that? Cooking until 11:30 and then scrubbing a kitchen and then worrying about payroll? It sounds like a nightmare, doesn’t it?

Writing is very much the same—though with admittedly more flexible hours and your hands are in better shape and your clothes don’t smell like grease.

But most writers fail. Most poems and stories and novels never make it into print. And those that do are unlikely to sell well.  

And along the way? If you want to be a professional writer? It’s a lot of work.

There’s the writing and the revising and the proof-reading, and there’s more of it, a lot more of it, than most people know. Imagine, every time you make soup, you make a huge, huge pot of it, and you have to start over thirty-seven times, and then you carefully ladle one perfect bowl and throw the rest of it out. (And then no one wants to eat that one bowl anyway.) It’s not that much fun.

And of course, before you can even make that soup, you have to eat lots and lots of other people’s soup, and then you have to try their recipes and spend a couple of years thinking about what you like about soup in the first place.

The truth is, most people who think they want to write, don’t actually want to work that hard at it. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to work that hard at writing. You just don’t get to be a professional writer. You have to find a different dream.

Some people, lots of people actually—many, many people that I personally know—do want to work that hard. They spend years laboring over that one perfect piece. And when they’re finished? Jesus, it’s beautiful. It really is.

It’s the next part that kills them. Because the next part is trying to publish that piece, and it is excruciating.

There are query letters and submissions and so many of each that you have to build a spreadsheet to keep it all straight. There is a ridiculous amount of rejection and it will come as form rejections and brutally worded critiques of your work and very often as silence and it would be hard for me to tell you which of these is the worst. It depends on the day. Some of that rejection is a comment on the quality of the work you’re submitting. Some of it is not. It’s impossible to tell which is which.

I don’t know many people who want to do this part, and I know even fewer people who do it well, or who can keep doing it without losing their will to live. It is truly, truly horrible, and it’s okay to not want to do it. The truth is that very few people can and the people who can do this part are very often not the same people who can spend years and years and years making the beautiful art.

There are people who will tell you that publishing is a racket or that it’s impossible to break in, that there are too many gate-keepers, and that the system is fucking rigged. None of that’s true. Well, there are a lot of gate-keepers. And if you want to be a professional writer you have to be both a person who wants to spend hours and hours making the art and also the person who likes trying a lot of gates. No one is going to come and find you and show you the back entrance. There is no secret back entrance. Sorry.

But truthfully, that’s for the best, because the good thing about how hard it is to get published is that it forces out the people who just don’t have the drive and endurance for what comes next. Because the work doesn’t stop, and the criticism doesn’t stop, and the self-doubt and rejection don’t fucking stop. And the harder you have to work to get published, the better prepared you are for that.

If someone gave my friend a restaurant tomorrow, she would run it into the ground. We all know that. So if you do want to be a writer, a professional writer? What I wish for you is that it’s hard. Really hard. I hope you can take it. It’s okay if you can’t.