Let’s say you’ve labored long in the fields of creative writing and the People Who Know (or maybe just the people who’ve noticed) have appreciated your talent. Some have appreciated it loudly and publicly, some quietly to friends in ways that eventually come back to you, some through amazing feats of jealousy, and others through an unrelenting aggressive competitiveness that beggars belief. The lower the stakes, the higher the vitriol is an axiom of creative culture.
Let’s also say that for the first decade of writing and submitting short stories to magazines with names like Lost Nose Quarterly, Barbaric Yawp, and Bitch Review, the feedback of the 25-year-old readers working on these magazines mattered. Susie Lillywhite, the fiction editor at Uncommon Snuff, writes you a personalized rejection, praising your “humorous story of cis-het men behaving badly,” and your ever-present grinding self-doubt abates for ten full minutes; though, on minute 11, you wonder how Susie writes dialogue (“Hello, Mister Cisgendered Heteronormative Male. How are you today?” / “Hello, Thinly Veiled Proxy For Susie Designed To Signpost Authorial Identity And Abate Criticism. I am fine.”).
You get the inevitable raft of rejections and a few acceptances. In time, your acceptance average goes up. You know this because you obsessively gamify your submission process on a spreadsheet like fantasy baseball. Maybe your box scores show progress. Maybe all this effort means something—if not anything tangible in your day-to-day existence, then perhaps in a kind of working-fiction-writer sabermetrics that suggests your chosen life direction hasn’t been a horrible mistake. Maybe the 500 hypothetical readers of Dogwater International are upping your short story RBI. It’s possible. Don’t say it isn’t.
You’ve got a novel in progress. This goes without saying. Everyone has a novel in progress. Your screenwriter friend, Gaurangi, tells you she has two novels in progress, a poetry chapbook in progress, and a book of essays in progress. Yet, she’s miserable and hates her life. “Is that because you’re still assistant manager at KFC and can’t break through the glass ceiling?” “No,” she says, “it’s because you’re a fucking asshole.” You’ve been friends for 15 years. Her name means “giver of happiness.”
There is no joy like mine, you think. I am a cherry blossom adrift in the infinite cosmos. The form email from GOAT Bomb sits in your inbox. You can see that it begins, “Dear Valued Author, thank you for submitting to GOAT Bomb . . .” but you’ve been meditating. And if zazen has taught you anything, it’s that impersonal form rejections are naught but the transcendent meanderings of The Great Vehicle. The rejections aren’t depressing you. It must be something else.
So let’s say you’ve also learned how to save money as an effective freelance survival tactic. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’ve managed to eke out an existence as a ghost writer and a copyeditor. Let’s say, also for the sake of argument, that your cousin, who thought college was stupid, now makes low six figures as a construction manager and thinks you’re hilarious. You see him at Christmas dinner, a rosy-cheeked beer-drinking construction Santa with a twinkle in his eye. And he asks you the same thing he asked you last year: “Are you a mental midget?” He finds the question hilarious. “No,” you say. “I mentally fidget.” He can’t stop laughing. “With your digits!” In this family, we come together through spontaneous and combustive rhyming. You don’t take it personally.
But you don’t follow baseball. Thus, your spreadsheet submission game perpetually teeters on the edge of something else, deep and dark, eldritch and unspeakable, an existential abyss. Why do you do it? How does publishing another story in The East Punjabi Fiction Annual (that took you six months of sustained before-dawn writing sessions and seven painful drafts) matter in the construction management food-on-the-table sense? You joke, but there are no rhymes for it, at least none that would entertain your cousin.
The fact is, you are a mental midget. You must be if you still have to worry about putting ten more dollars on the credit card for a sandwich at Safeway—which isn’t Joe Biden’s fault. So don’t start. The supply chain is effed-up, yes. Covid is ineffable, yes. The pandemic shooed you out of Bangkok one step ahead of the Thai quarantine police, yes, and now you’re living in a Hawaiian jungle, but that has nothing to do with anything. Here you are. The feral rooster outside goes, “KEEEEE-YAAAAW-KOOOOO!” And the great world turns with its comings and goings.
Smoke three cigarettes with Gaurangi in her Kia in the parking lot of KFC. It’s midnight and she is off work. You drove into Hilo just for this because it’s a miracle that you both now live in the same place and she texted you: come smoke a cigarette with me so I can cope with the fact that I manage idiots. She won’t smoke at home because she has a two-year-old daughter and cigarettes are poison. “I should move back to L.A.” she says. “The fucking Big Island’s getting me nowhere.” “You married a Hawaiian.” She looks at you, drags deeply, and smiles. “Yes. That probably has something to do with why I’m here.”
One manages a KFC in Los Angeles if one wants to be a screenwriter, a whole different fantasy ballgame. One brings one’s Hawaiian husband to a bungalow in Glendale. Maybe one sells the script for She’s Gotta Have It 2, earning $135,000 for the original screenplay, including treatment, and suddenly it’s all cheddar. One writes one’s friend in the jungle: I don’t hate L.A. now. It is what it is. Now one can calm down and finish that poetry chapbook in peace.
You’re drinking too much coffee and you read a lot of news. Some nut writing for The Conversation says Covid and climate change are going to turn coffee into a rare luxury item like Kobe beef or Cristal. But the enormous tin of Safeway Select on top of your refrigerator suggests otherwise. You wonder how much the writer got paid to cook up a pandemic scare piece on coffee. What if you pitched something similar about a thing everybody wants being unceremoniously taken away by forces beyond one’s control? What about cheese: “Is Cheese Systemically Racist? Biden Might be Coming for Your Gruyere.” Or sex: “The Death of Intimacy: Gen Z Prefers Online Porn to Sex and Who Can Blame Them?” Or healthcare: “The GOP Thinks Letting Grandpa Die is Good for the Economy.” You write these ideas down and fire up the laptop. There’s rent to be made.
At this point, there are many possibilities. You’ve moneyballed your way into 30, 40 magazine publications. You have three published story collections and a multitude of columns, articles, and essays floating through the aetheric digitalia. But you still live in the jungle. You’ve got a neighbor up the dirt road who deals with his emotions by smoking crack and shooting cats with his Marlin 60. You’re still getting rejections from 25-year-olds and machines that go, “While we appreciate your interest in Dark Pissoir . . . “
Occasionally, some acquaintance on social media will pay attention to you for more than 30 seconds and wonder how you exist. How do you make a living (or How can you possibly make a living?)? You say as best you can. There are 25-year-olds publishing novels with Random House. There are 25-year-olds managing construction sites and getting welding certificates and buying their kids $900 gaming consoles. And there’s a fine line of termite dust along the base of your hovel’s north wall. Are you discouraged? What does that mean, exactly?