The transition from dilettante to serious artist is always indistinct. As with any art form, one becomes what one does. One becomes a writer by saying, “I’m a writer” and then writing. I suppose one becomes “serious” after demonstrating or announcing one’s seriousness at some later date. But isn’t it a little absurd to say, “I’m a serious writer”? It immediately raises the question, “How serious?”
To which one may respond: I’m dead serious, more serious than a heart attack. So serious I got two degrees in it. So horrifically, agonizingly, putridly serious that I’ve kept doing it through poverty, flood, plague, and famine. More serious than a white sale in June. More serious than the fine print. Hell, I am the fine print. I’m a serious dude. It’s my thing. I might as well put it on my business card: Serious Writer Since 1997. That’s over two decades of seriousness, okay?
Maybe that is the required declaration, the necessary attestation of commitment at the necessary volume to prove you’re the real deal. Because you have to prove it, right? Because no one can assume how serious you are by just looking at you the way they might if you were some other sort of professional. No one’s a part-time brain surgeon. No one does constitutional law as a hobby. No one flies for Lufthansa as a side gig. No one asks how serious a nuclear engineer is. When Red October is about to go under the ice, no one says, “Sure, but how serious is the captain?”
In the arts, however, people always wonder. Some journalist, critic, competitor, or professor is always ready to say, “You Don’t Deserve to Live was an entertaining novel, but it’s not serious.” And then everyone must nod as if that makes sense. This is probably because no one will ever truly agree on how to define a serious writer producing serious writing. No one has a clue.
Does money show it (James Patterson)? Do numerous film adaptations of your work show it (Stephen King)? How about literary and cultural iconicity (Alice Munro, Bret Easton Ellis)? What about your books frequently showing up on university syllabi (Michael Cunningham, Francine Prose)? What about your writing having been convincingly marketed as a “modern classic” such that it will one day be hermetically sealed in the basement of Cheops for post-apocalyptic archaeologists to dig up (Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt)? Where’s the benchmark for quality? Who can say? I can say I like some of these writers and dislike others. But I like a lot of things and people, many of which will no doubt be adjudged “not serious” as soon as we can determine what that is.
Maybe no one asks Alice Munro whether she’s a serious writer anymore because she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. Maybe that’s the only reliable standard. No one argues with the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel committee called her a “master of the short story” and said she revolutionized modern literature. Of course, three years later they said as much about Bob Dylan. Three years between literary revolutions can make one’s head spin, but these are interesting times. Next, the Nobel committee may award Munro a prize for her influence on folk music. Then we can all relax. They know what they’re doing.
Of course, there’s still the inner, subjective, impressionistic option. At various stressful moments in my childhood, my mom would quote a line from “Duration,” my birth hexagram in the I-Ching: “[T]he dedicated man embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life, and thereby the world is formed. In that which gives things their duration, we can come to understand the nature of all beings in heaven and on earth.” She said this often enough that I had it memorized by age 12. An enduring meaning in his way of life. Maybe that’s it. “Enduring meaning” has a nice sound. It’s certainly a better formulation and standard than any of the others given above.
But Nobel doesn’t award prizes for embodying an enduring meaning in one’s way of life. It happens quietly, without parades and gold medals and book tours and exhausting four-hour dinners in New York and swarms of desperate grad students. The only revolution it can incite is an inner revolution, an inner revelation. The New York Times Book Review won’t be covering it. Alice will remain in Canada. Bob will stare at a tree outside the window and hum a little tune.
So how do you know if you’re a serious writer, if you have talent, if you aren’t wasting your time? You can never know these things relative to what people say or how much money you’re making off your work or whether the gatekeepers and critics deem you worthy. You can know whether the act of writing sometimes makes you feel good. And in that feeling, there may be a quiet, personal meaning. And if you write regularly, you may embody that meaning such that it becomes part of your life, a way of life. And then you can stop asking questions that originate in commercial and social status anxiety instead of in the metaphysics of the creative process.