Writers like to write articles extolling the many misconceptions about their profession; misconceptions that, at times, they themselves believe. Warning others about the trappings of the writer life is probably as much about trying to absolve themselves of sin as it is about being a benevolent force once one reaches a certain place in their writing career.
I don’t think that tendency is unique to writers. I don’t even think the foibles of the writing profession are strictly limited to it. We fall into many of the same traps as anyone does if they define themselves largely by what they do. And if what they do happens to have a relationship with who they are.
One of the foremost thoughts in my mind, something I feel that I want to express loudly and often to those who wish to know anything about what it’s like to write for a living, is that reaching a certain point along the career trajectory does not assure that your life will suddenly get easier, or better.
Getting a literary agent in September won’t keep your pipes from freezing in January. Selling a book in December won’t keep your loved one from dying just before Christmas. Negotiating a respectable advance and taking eighteen months to research and write your book will not magically cure you of your ills and ailments and aches and pains.
Success is not a salve. Chanting your bylines three times in front of a mirror does not carry protective magic. Your resume is not a grimoire.
I am sicker now than when I began writing my book — the subject of which is what has made me so sick. I’m not blaming the book or the work it entailed. I’m not saying that writing a book made me sicker. What I’m just saying is that reaching such a milestone didn’t heal me.
Achieving this marker of success as defined by an industry, by other people within and without, did not make work easier. It didn’t make my life easier.
It also didn’t make it explicitly harder to endure. At times it has challenged me, but it did not make my life permanently more difficult. My life has carried on independent of the work I do, and remains largely unaffected by it.
I think we like to believe that the universe is rooting for us to thrive. Or at the very least, we hope it does not wish for us to fail.
I personally feel better thinking that I don’t matter very much in the Grand Scheme of Things. I like to believe that I exist unseen by the universe.
That’s why I enjoy writing about science. I’m reminded every single day (multiple times a day) that I‘m an insignificant part of a significant whole.
Yet I am human. Try as I might to suppress my unrelenting desire to find or establish a sense of purpose, I am still embroiled in the meaningless search for meaning that we all undertake in one way or another.
I had always harbored hope that maybe writing a book would make me more confident in my abilities not as a writer, but as a human. Writing a book was not so much about proving that I could write (surely I could do that in a much shorter form?) but rather, proving that I could identify something worth writing about. That I recognized the power of an untold tale, and that I could muster up or harness some kind of internal power in order to tell it.
I never expected it would be my own story that I would tell. All my life I’ve confessed to pages in lieu of pews; and secret and sacred habit. I did not particularly want to be a memoirist, and I don’t really consider myself one. The components of my book that are from my own life, that tell my story, were in service to a larger story. A story that is not only mine.
It was only when I realized how little I matter that I felt I had the strength to lend my fears to others. I sliced my pain wide open, right down the middle, so that I could give some away and keep a little for myself.
There is so little I feel that I can keep for myself these days.
Reaching a particular pinnacle of achievement as a writer has certainly not translated into anything practical. I’m still woefully inadequate at expressing myself. I’m an author yet I still can never seem to say quite what I mean.
Quite recently I had a peculiar and intense conversation with another human being that played out over the course of several weeks. The summer heat makes me odd, you see.
This man and I were fleetingly fascinated with one another because we were contrary in such a way that it was nearly complementary. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were two halves of a whole, because neither of us are, or have ever been, truly whole. We lobbed our disparities back and forth, and they seemed to fit us effortlessly; almost sensually.
Perpetually overwhelmed by and unlearned in the ways of men, I found myself grasping for someone else’s answers and explanations. At times we all find our strength in someone else’s struggles. Our truth in the lies someone else tells themselves.
He told me he would find my work quite unsatisfying because it is so sedentary and he likes to be in motion. “It would be interesting to watch you do it, though.” He said, studying me as though I was a painting to be considered; a mere conception or rendering of a living woman.
I told him he was right. He would find my work boring — most people do.
“I suspect most people think I don’t work very much at all,” I said.
“A different kind of work,” he supplied.
Those who have suggested what I do is not work, or it is not real work, or it is not meaningful work, are often the very same folk who come home after a long day at the office and the only thing that has gotten them through that seemingly never-ending day (week/month/season/year/decade) was the thought of a drink and a few mind-numbing hours of The Walking Dead.
They are often those who read articles on the internet about questions they forgot to ask years ago, or could never have been bothered to ask when finding the answer would have required a library card and paper cuts.
There are an awful lot of people who seem to live their entire lives consuming words in one form or another without realizing that they were written. Books do not just appear. Movies and television, while visual and visceral and now in living color, begin on the black-and-white page.
Really, it all begins in the mind.
I tried to explain this: that the different kind of work is not (for me at least) the act of writing, but rather, all that comes before it.
Writing doesn’t trouble me nearly so much as living does.
Writers, then, will always have work. Yes, because we will write. But more so, I think, because in order to do that we must do all of these other hard and unsavory things. It’s not just that we live and experience, but that we’re willing to relive it again and again and again until the work is done.
Yes, we get to revel in the joys of life at will, but with that comes the knowledge that we will forever be regurgitating our sorrow and shame.
As I chewed on my most recent humiliation, I contemplated narcissism quite deeply. Not just others’, but my own. My obligation to maintain an active social media presence when it is deeply against my nature to do so has made me consider these theories quite frequently, though one idea in particular has been circling my brain drain.
It’s the idea that narcissists don’t develop a proper sense of object permanence. Part of our early development is learning that just because something disappears from our field of view (a toy, the dog, our mother) it does not mean it ceases to exist. To the infant mind, only what is right in front of them to see and feel is real.
When it is no longer visible and tangible, it simply ceases to exist.
If you are not visible to the narcissist, and the internet at large I am realizing, you simply cease to be. It’s not even that you are invisible or don’t matter.
You have no matter.
And so, although I stopped trying to assert my corporeal form to individual people who lack the necessary peripheral emotional vision to see me, I accept that I must continue to prove my existence to the internet. I can find some joy in the task, particularly when I get to share something whimsical.
I suppose writing a book did give me more to share. It perhaps has made my life a bit more interesting to the casual observer. I don’t know that it’s given me a more solid sense of purpose. I don’t believe it has made me any more brave or certain.
Still, while it has not given me those things it has given me the gift of opportunity. Though I am often frustrated and disappointed to miss out on the gift in full — due to illness, or money, or fear — I try to find some hope for others in the possibilities that pass me by.
There’s an old Scottish saying, “What’s for you will not pass you.”
I hold onto the hope that what’s meant for me in life will be patient. That if I cannot rise to greet it, if I am not strong enough or brave enough to reach out and take it by the hand, that it will pause. That it will sit down beside me, soothe my hair, and wait.
It sees me even when I am not standing before it and demanding to be seen.
It knows that I exist even when I am not there to prove it.
It sees, and knows, and believes, in what of me transcends the physical world.
The specks of me that belong to the universe. Warm light that was here before me and will remain here long after I’m gone.
Abby Norman is a science writer and editor based in New England. Her first book ASK ME ABOUT MY UTERUS: A QUEST TO MAKE DOCTORS BELIEVE IN WOMEN’S PAIN will be released by Nation Books March 6, 2018. She is currently a science editor at Futurism and the host of Let Me Google That on Anchor.fm. She’s represented by Tisse Takagi in NYC. Interview requests and inquiries about her forthcoming book can be made to her publicist, Brooke Parsons at Hachette (firstname.lastname@example.org). Follow Abby on Twitter @abbymnorman.