As a child, whenever I told adults that I wanted to be a writer, they always smiled and asked if I wanted to be famous.
Famous! Like Mickey Mouse and Elvis and Stephen King. Of course, I did!
I was always starting novels that I felt certain would induct me into the literary hall of fame. “Ten-year-old reveals astounding insight in her debut horror novel The Heart Stop! A tour de force of stupefying scariness!” (This was an actual title and I was very proud of having come up with it.)
As I grew older, I started to realize how hard literary fame was to come by. You would do well to get a publisher to even read your novel, the writing magazines said. The stars in my eyes dimmed.
I adjusted my ambitions. If fame was unobtainable, maybe I could at least draw a steady paycheck and make a living doing what I enjoyed. That would be a feat worth celebrating since most adults I knew hated their jobs.
A paycheck would confer a humbler version of fame: respectability.
I had a sobering image of myself as an adult trudging to a mailbox carrying a stack of bills, feeling self-contained, responsible, and independent—a far cry from the glitz of universal adulation but there was a certain respectability in it.
Unfortunately, while respectability oozed pious pragmatism, it killed my inspiration. Respectability seemed to demand relentless conformity. It encouraged grammatical nitpicking and safe creative choices.
I had originally been attracted to writing because it was fun. Attempting to make it responsible killed my subversive joy, and I became blocked.
Finally, after many years of stuttering out grammatically correct unfinished stories, I gave up on being “respectable.”It was the best decision I ever made.
I started back writing like I did when I was ten: with unapologetic, exuberant abandon. If I wrote anything too silly I could always tell myself, “That was brilliant for a ten-year-old.” My block went away and never came back.
Sometimes I still dreamed of becoming famous. But I noticed a troubling pattern with my heroes, how one after one, the writing celebrities I had once admired were tossed off their pedestals after revealing an unpopular opinion, a bad habit, or a dark past. Fame, like, money, only existed in the collective human imagination and could evaporate like a passing thought.
I came to view fame, paychecks, and respectability as dispensable relics of a dream that others had implanted in me.
The creative process was where the true wealth was, the elixir buried beneath a mound of misguided virtues that society extolled such as discipline, efficiency, and competition.
The art, I thought, is where the awe is.
I still think so. When I write, I enter vast creative chamber where any mistake is allowed. It is an anarchic place without competition, rules, or hierarchies. The chill I sometimes feel when an idea captures my imagination borders on the numinous.
I am an agnostic. But there are brief pockets of time, usually at night, when an idea for a story strikes me and I have the thought, “There is a God after all.”
The thought comes with a feeling of euphoria, and with it a desire that eclipses everything else that is going on in my life.
I think, This story has to exist. It has to exist even if it no one else ever reads it. It has to exist even if it turns out to be awful. It has to exist even if writing it is the last thing I do before I die.
Usually the afterglow of my epiphany has vanished by morning. But the idea remains.
Sometimes it comes with a mild sense of foreboding. I know that no matter how good my idea seemed the night before, the actual writing is going to be hard. My story idea, incandescent as it might have been in my head, is bound to pale beneath my pen.
It is remembering my moment of “epiphany”—however dubious—that emboldens me to tunnel through many wobbly rough drafts, rewrites, and painstaking edits.
I am doing more than just writing. I am nailing together a staircase of words to climb back to my original feeling of enlightenment—that feeling that I was onto something, that some dull curtain of perception was parting to emit the seductive light of truth.
After many false starts and adjustments I begin to see, once again, why my original idea seemed so luminous.
When my writing is going really well, all thoughts of “winning” fall away, and hierarchies prove to be what they have been all along: imaginary.
But childhood fantasies die hard.
Fame would mean a lot of readers, and I like readers. And money is useful for things like buying chocolate. I like chocolate.
But If I had all the money in the world I would still write. I would write for the same reason I still play The Legend of Zelda, cram my coffee full of cream, and keep a cat around me at all times.
Fame tarnishes over time and money looks alike no matter where it comes from, whether babysitting, school teaching, or insider trading.
I was right to give up on respectability. Respectability is a lie. The art is where the awe is. My ten-year-old self knew that well. And after too many years of block, so do I.