Of Books, and Lizards, and Housewives (Or, “Ain’t I A Writer?”)

Hello! My name is Michelle, and I cannot write a book.

Here is a list of other things I have written (non-exhaustive):

  • Tweets
  • Restaurant reviews
  • Press releases
  • A resume for my dog (non-ironic)
  • Blog posts
  • Strongly worded letters to people or organizations who have wronged me
  • Legal briefs
  • Recipes
  • Academic papers
  • Interviews
  • Cryptic Facebook status updates
  • Website copy
  • Cover letters
  • Internet comments, sincere
  • Internet comments, snide
  • Op-eds
  • Memos
  • Grant proposals

Here is a sample of things I have not written:

  • A fiction book
  • A non-fiction book
  • Any kind of book at all

Why can’t I write a damn book?

More importantly, why does it matter?

*     *     *     *     *

 

I suppose technically that’s not true; I did write a book in the fourth grade, when our ETC* project was to write, illustrate, and hand-bind a book. I hate to think of age eight as my artistic peak, although I suppose one must entertain the possibility.

*Education Through Challenge!**

**Alternate names thought of by ETC students: Evil Teachers Club, Extra Tasty Creampuffs.

 

*     *     *     *     *

Aside from brief childhood dreams of becoming the quarterback for the New York Giants (ha), a choreographer (seriously), and a concert pianist (good, but not that good), I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve always loved words, and reading, and the feel and smell of paper. Writing — especially writing longhand — lets me untangle the knots in my brain and figure out what it is I really think and believe far more effectively than talking ever could; I’m awkward and surprisingly inarticulate in person as compared to when I’m words on a screen. All the confidence and insight I don’t have when I’m sitting in front of someone pours into the keyboard.

Most of the educational and career decisions I’ve made have been awkward, poorly-thought out attempts to figure out how to be a writer. Journalism school! (Oh, you have to talk to strangers? On the telephone? Fail.) Graduate school! (Oh, being a professor means eventually having to teach snotty undergrads like me, and not just churning out papers? Fail.) Law school! (Oh, this means being a lawyer? Fail.)

I tried all those things because just announcing, “Now I am a writer!” does not pay your rent. Ironically, but not entirely surprisingly, most of those things cost tremendous amounts of money. Ironically, but not entirely surprisingly, I didn’t have any real success or get any closer to my dream until just announcing, “Now I am a writer!”: starting a blog and deciding to write, whether or not anyone read it or gave me any money.

Now, I’ve written hundreds of blog posts. I have a salaried job as a writer and editor. When people ask me, “What do you do?” I say “writer.” But part of me thinks I’m a liar, because I still haven’t written a fucking book.

*     *     *     *     *

And it eats at me! I mean, terrible people with nothing of value to say conceptualize, write, and publish books all the time. Memoirs no one needs. Awful, hackneyed fiction with unbelievable characters and ridiculous plots. Bestsellers upon bestsellers that are essentially all the same book, re-written to take place in a different city, or to give the main character a new haircut and a new love interest (cough Dan Brown cough). Shitty books that don’t teach, don’t uplift, don’t explore an idea from a new angle, don’t bare anything, don’t make us laugh or cry or even wince a little, that don’t provoke any thoughts or emotion or action other than the author laughing all the way to the bank.

These books get written and published all the time, but I have not been able to write a book.

What does that say about me? Mostly nothing; there are lots of different kinds of writers. There’s no rule that says you have to have written a book to be a “real” writer, and I’d rather not write a book than write a piece of shit one.

Or, it says that I have less talent and creativity than Real Housewife of New Jersey Teresa Giudice, who has written not one, but five books.*

So there you have it, I suppose. GODDAMNIT.

*In the interest of fairness: I haven’t read them, and I suppose there is a non-zero chance that they are (1) good and (2) not written by a ghost writerIn which case: I am sorry, Mrs. Giudice, to use you as the easy target.

*     *     *     *     *

Of course, writing essays or articles or longform pieces is an entirely acceptable way to be a writer. But I don’t do journalism, and there’s already a David Sedaris doing a great job of being him. And lord knows there’s no shortage of sub-book-length thinkpieces and hot takes and feminist critiques and personal musings, in both physical and digital print.

I suppose there’s part of me that doesn’t really understand what I’m contributing by adding another post to that pile of largely-unread words, even while I’m in the act of doing it; I don’t know that tacking on the Italian-American, size 12 shoe, curly-haired, fan-of-mountaineering-literature perspective really moves the cultural needle. If I wrote a book, though, that would mean I had an idea complex and significant enough to require unpacking over several hundred pages. That would have to be worthwhile, wouldn’t it? Something the world needs, and proof that I am a Deep Thinker with Provocative Cultural Critiques. Length as an approximate stand-in for substance.

The many papers I wrote in grad school that were at least 33% “defining our terms,” 61% “understanding the larger context,” 5.4% “advance rebuttals,” and 0.6% “vaguely original thoughts” would seem to suggest that those two things are not, in fact, interchangeable. And yet.

And yet. I am unable to produce a book-length piece of writing, which obviously means I have a stunted chipmunk brain incapable of sustaining a prolonged train of thought. Probably if you scan, like, Margaret Atwood’s brain, it looks like a swirling buzz of activity, with thousands of little writing helpers swarming around transforming fats and proteins and carbohydrates into witty repartee and devastating insights. I imagine it’s like a beehive filled with tiny Margarets who are constantly peering over the tops of their tiny reading glasses, and who wear tiny color-coded outfits that tell you whether they’re responsible for plot or character or structure, and they’re working on seventeen simultaneous new books. And if you scan mine, it’s a cartoon desert with a couple of tumbleweeds and a bleached cow skull. Maybe on a day when I write a blog post, there’s also, like, a lizard sunning itself on a rock who vomits out 800 words before belching and falling back asleep.

*     *     *     *     *

A horrifying thought occurs: what if there are a finite number of words and perspectives, and Teresa Guidice used up my allotment? Maybe she filled the curly-haired New Jersey woman Italian quota first. Shit shit shit.

*     *     *     *     *

The other thing is that, honestly, I don’t feel like I have a book inside of me that’s waiting to burst out. I don’t want to write a book, I want to want to write a book. I read pieces by other writers, about how they have no choice, they have to be writers, they have to let the words out or die, there was never really any other career option because they are writersThe stories must be released. Writing as trepanation, but for words instead of noxious spirits.

Writers gotta write, y’all.

I… don’t? I mean, I have this space where I get to write whatever I want, whenever I want to, and unlike many other writers, there are actually people who show up regularly to read the things I have to say. And I publish something here, what, maybe twice a month? And half the time, it’s shit like this.

I do write, and edit, basically every day of my working life. While what I create there largely isn’t like what I write for myself, given my druthers, I enjoy it nonetheless, and I care about it. Yet it is somehow less real in my brain, this writing-for-work, as opposed to writing-for-passion: is it real art if it’s an assignment?

Because at the end of a day of paid writing and editing, I mostly don’t feel a burning need to keep writing. Every once in a while, yes, but mostly, I want to cook some dinner and read a good book. Like just being a writerly cog in the machine of Big Blogging is a-okay, because what I love is the act of writing and editing, and it’s fun whether I’m doing it for myself, or for someone else. If I didn’t have this job, I’d probably write more for myself. But I do, so I don’t.

I wonder if Michelangelo was ever like, “Ugh, I can’t wait to finish these boring-ass statutes for the tomb of Pope Julius II so I can get back to real sculptures,” or if it was more like, “Holy shit, someone is paying me real money to create sculpture!” Probably the latter, although he would have said that it a more poetic way. But I don’t think I’m the only one who now assumes that a real artist is one who’s not beholden to some financial interest; it’s what’s behind the whole idea of “sellouts.” When did that happen?

Also, not that I’m comparing myself to Michelangelo, although we are both Italian and clearly both enjoy High Church pageantry, so draw your own conclusions.

Maybe I could write a book about that? But probably not.

So maybe the issue is not a lack of talent or complex ideas, but lack of any ideas: I can write when given an assignment, but on my own, cannot generate a topic, and that is why I can’t write a book. And that’s depressing, which is why the whole not-writing-a-book thing continues to rankle. Maybe Michelangelo also beat himself up because he could only really sculpt in response to a papal commission. But probably not.

Maybe I could write a book about that?

*     *     *     *     *

Maybe you all just need to stop pressuring me. Friends and family often respond to more serious posts I publish here by asking me when I’m going to write a book. Which: totally flattering! They enjoyed something I wrote so much that they’d like to read more of it. Incredible. The best.

And also: my god the pressure. I said what I wanted to say in the post! I’m not sure I have anything more to say! Why don’t I have anything more to say?! 

And then the lizard has a panic attack and slides right off the hot rock, bonk.

*     *     *     *     *

I can’t lie; I’m not really sure what the upshot is here. It’s definitely not that you should leave a bunch of comments trying to reassure me that of course I’m a good writer, and of course I can call myself a writer even if I don’t write books, lots of writers don’t write books, and it’s funny, we did always think of you as a modern-day Michelangelo.

Maybe it’s some larger point about art and commerce? I don’t think so, though. I actually think it’s pretty tremendous that someone pays me a regular salary to be the kind of writer where I have significant control over what I write, and how, and my voice.

It’s probably partly about self-doubt combined with the guilt I have over my privilege and the fear that that privilege somehow insulates me from creating really real writing, which, in the end, is a miasma of white lady feelings that the world doesn’t need to hear more about, although maybe I’ll expand my thoughts on that and post them on Medium*.

Really, though, I think it’s about how I always thought that being a Writer, capital W, meant writing books, and until you’re holding a printed book with your name on it in your hot little hands, you’re a lesser kind of writer. And these words are the death throes of a dream, or the birth pains of of a writer — a really real one — who is working on being okay with the fact that there’s a strong chance that the Great American novel will never emanate from her particular typewriter.

Hello! My name is Michelle, and I don’t write books.

*Zing!

55 Comments

  1. From time to time people ask me, “when are you going to write a book?”
    Actually, I have written a book, and then I shoved it in a drawer. Never to see the light of day because, really, it was a piece of shit. But thanks for asking.
    There is a feeling, not just among writers, that all writers must eventually write books. As though we’re duty-bound. But it doesn’t count if it doesn’t get published, right? And then gets read by many, many people. Also, gets great reviews and wins a few awards. Made into a movie? Sure, that too!
    Honestly, I can psych myself out so easily!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Sounds to me like when the time comes you will write a book and you aren’t going to write any old tripe for the sake of it! You don’t need to give yourself a hard time for having standards. I have only seen Teresa Giuduce this year on a US Celebrity Apprentice rerun, I would usually only get Irish and UK ones. She had zip creativity and never wrote in the tasks. She seemed like a nice enough person, but totally out of her depth. Only Lisa Lampanelli got any credit for being able to write. Teresa has ghost writers, that’s all! Has to!

    Like

  3. It’s the Miss America complex. We not only have to do the thing, like write, but we have be the best, win the award, like C.J. said. I wrote a book once. It was a cookbook for my kids and nieces. About 20 pages. They love it. And use it. So maybe 5 people have one. Is that enough? Maybe 4 people read my blog posts when I write one. The few who do tell me they are encouraged. Is that enough? My goal now is the have peace with who I am. I always wanted to be famous. Now I want to be satisfied being loved by the few people that really matter to me.

    Michelle, you’re a great writer. I hope you too will find peace with who you are.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. well, its all about perspectives, I guess – I have written a book and had it published, and write a poetry blog BUT I don’t have a day job that pays me to write!! So for me that would be a dream….instead I am just the poor (as in broke) writer/artist :-/ lol

    Liked by 4 people

  5. I wrote my first school play when I was eight. I have written five books which are now residing in shoe boxes in the closet and no one sees them but my own eyes. I started writing the ultimate bestseller (I hope and dream big) someday earlier this year and stop due to ill health (excuses, excuses… though I’m suffering from arthritis courtesy of auto-immune disease it is hardly an excuse) The book is written and finished in my head and I even have a movie version of it in my mind in technicolor but putting words on paper proves to be an ordeal. I know one of these days I have to do it and soon before I totally loss the capacity to move my fingers.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Question: Would you rather have a published book with mediocre sales figures, or a rocking blog with a great following and a paying job that ALSO lets you write. Books are so last century, blogging is where it’s at!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I feel you. I don’t call myself a Writer because my only “books” are fanfiction, which is not Real Writing, despite having slaved over them for months. I’d need to have an original plot with original characters and original backstory, and that shit takes time and energy I’d rather spend watching The X-Files.

    Whether you write a book or not, yours is one of the few blogs that I’ll drop everything to read, which I think makes you the Margaret Atwood of blogging.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is, literally, the best thing anyone has ever said to me. Well, other than the time Brian told me I was as demure as a brick to the head. I tend to think any similarity between Margaret Atwood and myself starts and ends with our hair, but I WILL TAKE IT.

      The lizard preens upon his rock.

      (And no, I don’t know why the lizard is male. Maybe because Real Writers are men? Or maybe because lizards are yucky.)

      You rock rock on with your fanfic. Go be the next EL James, except with way better written books.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. “The other thing is that, honestly, I don’t feel like I have a book inside of me that’s waiting to burst out. I don’t want to write a book, I want to want to write a book”.
    This is the best thing you could ever said to explain yourself being so honest 🙂
    When we write, something is inside waiting to burst out (no matter if it´s a poem, an essay, a novel; virtual or graphic; a book or a magazine or a blog or whatever).
    Great post!
    You ARE a writer.
    Hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is awesome, and I totally relate. But here’s how it goes.
    I’m a writer
    …yeah but do you make any money doing it?
    …yeah but did you write a book?
    …yeah but does your book make money?
    …yeah but would I have heard of it?
    …yeah but was it a best seller?
    …yeah but just one?
    …yeah but are they all best sellers?
    …yeah but are you J.K Rowling?
    You are?
    …yeah but can you top Harry Potter?

    No winning this game. However, only one person in the world invented the term Bronut Hole and changed my life. I’m forever in your debt. (My friend giggled more at The Updude).

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Enjoyed the post, although it took me several days to read the entire thing. Anyway, it sounds like you should write a book about writing. You seem to know what you’re talking about and so basically, you should turn this blog idea into a book. Why not, right?

    Like

  11. sO…. I don’t know why I read your entire post… and now find myself commenting (maybe tumor?…) boy that sounded horrible…what I am awkwardly trying to say is that I couldn’t stop reading… I was stuck.. (not a good thing since I am at work)…I don’t know why I was trapped by your words… I am not a writer (as you probably have noted)… I don’t want to write a book… or even want to want to write a book… cannot relate at all…so I am not sure why I am drawn to and fascinated with… well… lots of words… you have something…I can’t really offer advice, encouragement, etc. I don’t know what I am talking about when it comes to writing… well… except I do write code… all day I write code… I am good at it and I find no joy in writing it… I do find extreme pleasure in running it… executing something that I have struggled with all day and seeing it “work” makes all the effort real and meaningful.. hmmm… wonder if that is what “writers” need to find… a way to see their writing “run and work”. (could be wrong…)

    Like

    1. I really appreciate the read 🙂 And I think you’re absolutely right that we all want to see what we create “work” — for you, it might be a piece of software functioning and making someone’s life easier, for me, it might be touching someone or helping them articulate a problem, or just making them chuckle and brightening their day a little.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Ok, so I am fairly new to this blogging thing. Four years ago I stumbled onto writing for a music podcast website but have decided to blog now for personal reasons. Decided to step out and read the words of others today and this post was amazing! I could relate to it, it made me laugh and it was so well written I realize just how bad my writing is, but that’s ok too. Cheers!

    Like

  13. Tina Fey doesn’t write novels, but she’s an author and people love her work. You are as funny and literate as she is. Maybe the format of a novel is just too small to hold you.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. The same with me…was thinking of writing a book but it never happened and I don’t know when will it be happening…but…the important thing is that we still write…even if it’s not a book. *wink*

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Just wanted you to know that this post speaks to my heart. (If I were a better writer, perhaps I would come up with something more to say.)

    Whether you write a book, a blog post, or even a slogan for anti-fungal cream, I will read it. Thanks for being you!

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Thanks for sharing! I can relate as well (surely most writers can). I was hoping that you were going to offer a better answer to “Why don’t you write a book?” from your friends and colleagues than “Why don’t YOU write a book, motherf—-r?” though, but I left disappointed.

    Like

  17. I love your writing but most of all that you made me laugh several times in this piece on a Monday. Who needs a book. I’d never read it on a Monday morning anyway. Chipmunk brain, a finite allotment of words, a lizard puking out 800 words. Loved it all. And by the way, DONT write a book. Walk away from the light.

    Liked by 3 people

  18. “I don’t want to write a book, I want to want to write a book. “

    My wife asked me the other day if writing was a calling… and I writhed and hedged until I explained that it was a calling in the sense that there is persistent guilt when I am not doing it, but no special compulsion to begin. When I do write I recognize a degree of talent, and enjoy the validation of others reading it, but there is always an undercurrent of “If this really mattered you’d try harder”. And I do wonder if this something I was built for, or if I just enjoy the romance of the pretension.

    This was an excellent piece that stirred up some old ghosts. I need to stop by here more often.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. there is always an undercurrent of “If this really mattered you’d try harder”

      Gah, this applies to so many things beyond my lack of book-writing.

      Would that we could all be as nice to ourselves as we are to others.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Having read this post, the first I’ve read, I sense that you will never write a novel. Why? Because I don’t sense that you will die if you don’t write a novel. I don’t sense that you are disciplined enough. I don’t sense that you have read without stop for most of your life. I don’t sense that you are troubled enough, nervous enough, driven enough, wise enough, eccentric enough, asscrazy enough, doubtful enough, drunk enough. Mostly I don’t sense that you see enough. Writers of the novels you dream of writing see shit most people don’t see. Seeing shit that other miss is the thing, that and dying if you don’t write a novel. all the best. forgive me for my bluntness

    Like

    1. I also sense I will never write a novel, but not for any of the judgmental assumptions you make above. And I sense that I will not die if I don’t write a novel, as I pretty much stated that in my post.

      I also sense that I never actually said I had any desire to write a novel*, because “book” and “novel” are not synonymous, and I sense that my night would be more relaxing if I’d just ignored this comment.

      So that’s what I’m gonna do.

      *”Great American Novel” being a stand in, in that particular line, for “Really Important Book.”

      Like

  20. After reading a couple of posts, I definitely agree that you’re a writer. As for writing a book, it looks like you are doing so – several essays make up a book. You just need a little connecting tissue.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I love this. I used to feel the same way when I would procrastinate and procrastinate on writing.. I was afraid to call myself a writer until I finished something. Now that I’m actually writing, even thought I’m not yet established the way I want to yet, I feel more confident when I say “I’m a writer.”. I like saying it now.

    Like

  22. “A resume for my dog (non-ironic)” <— Awesome! It seems that you haven't found anything passionate enough to write about. People write tons of books that have a variety of differences that aren't published. You may write a book and find that a publishing company may not be "authorized" release the book the way it is written. They could edit out the most important things etc…

    You stated I don't want to write a book, however you wrote an entire blog about writing a book. I think this should be resolved. Do you really want to write a book? or are you just tired of what you are reading? You could write a book with short stories tons of them. Who said the book had to be a long drawn out story? I've read many books in my life and have a lot of books in my library currently on a variety of different subjects from sciences to nature, and non of them are written in the same tempo or tone. Some of them are just one story. Some contain many. So they are different ways to write and express yourself, but I think you should decide if this is what you really want to do. If so, find you passion and write about it!

    Like

  23. Your post resonates. I remember once having some dental treatment, I found myself in a beautiful part of the world, with an even more beautiful balcony, facing a daily spectacular sunset over a holy Buddhist mountain, with plenty of time to read a Garcia Marquez semi biography. I never did finish the book, I got stuck on a particular paragraph – literally, I dissected a thousand times, how did he just do that with those words? I am absolutely certain I can not generate characters, and I can not communicate conversation between characters, so that limits me to writing a book in the first person, about me, or a lone character sharing an epic monologue, and No, neither of those appeal or are of any interest to a reader. I could probably write 500 words about a discarded paper bag, and make someone laugh, but THAT book, that lovely intimate book launch, those sweet words from friends and family, are just not going to happen. So, thank you for your brilliant post, you nailed it for many of us. What to do? We write anyway!

    Like

  24. I wrote a book last year. Non-fiction, 13 pages, put it on various sites of mine. I don’t think anybody read it, at least nobody admitted to it. I wrote it to answer somebody’s question in length, because tweets didn’t get the job done. Now I write blog posts for that instead, and those do get read. There you have it: Books are overrated.

    No but seriously, I love this post, and the others I’ve read so far. Thank you, and happy writing! 🙂

    Like

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