Hello! My name is Michelle, and I cannot write a book.
Here is a list of other things I have written (non-exhaustive):
- 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
- Academic papers
- Cryptic Facebook status updates
- Website copy
- Cover letters
- Internet comments, sincere
- Internet comments, snide
- 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?
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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 writer. In 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 writers. The 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.