Imagine that you’re 20 years old, starting your third year of college as a Creative Writing Major, and justifying your $30,000 loans to your parents with daydreams of making the New York Times Best Seller List.
You know the statistics. You know that most books never sell more than 200 copies. Still, you imagine the day when your book sales explode and suddenly CNN wants to interview you, Steven Spielberg wants to option the movie rights, and the royalties not only save you from a lifetime of debt but let you buy your own bigger-than-a-closet apartment in New York and a house on Cape Cod for your parents. Even when the guy who took you to the symphony last week won’t answer his phone, even when you take your Chinese final with a 102 degree fever, you exude hope from this beautiful, foolish aspiration.
After all, you’re still young. You have at least 50 years of good mental capacity left, and odds are you can crank out some half-decent prose by then. You’ve published a story or two in some magazines with a decent circulation. You have a pretty face that can probably sell books. Teachers praise your work. Rejection letters hardly phase you because you know still have so much time.
But in the back of your mind, there’s still a massive storm cloud hovering at the fringes: what if you don’t make it? What if one day you wake up and you’re 40, only a handful of people have ever read your work, suddenly you’re no longer young and time seems a lot less infinite than it did before?
You look at disgruntled semi-famous writers in their late 30’s and feel sorry for them but keep your distance because their bitter attitudes clash with your shiny optimism. But deep down you know that in 20 years you might be just like them, and statistically, you probably will be. Dreams of becoming famous both drive you and haunt you. The foundation of your happiness is an irrational hope, and you wonder what will happen when it’s gone.
But you’re determined. You write stories every night and hate them by morning, then re-write them, re-name all the characters, change the setting from rural Japan to a New York train car and find that you still hate it. A few stories survive, and you send them to every magazine you can find, using all your ink to print manuscripts, all your saliva to seal envelopes. You drop them in the mailbox and begin the game of waiting six months for someone in a tiny office across the country to mail you back a quick and impersonal rejection slip on a half a sheet of paper.
But you’re still determined not to fail, so you research how books become best-sellers. Every website tells you that a platform is paramount, so you start a blog. The blatant self-promotion makes you cringe because like most writers, you’re a bookworm, and like most bookworms, you prefer to stay in the shadows. You wanted to sell your writing, not yourself, but you now understand that the publishing world is a business, and you are a brand.
You’ve maxed out on federal student loans, so you apply for private ones. By the time you graduate, you’ll owe well over $50,000. You consider teaching English abroad, even though you hate teaching, but it’s all you’re qualified for. You research part-time jobs to see what will pay the most and give you the most time to write. Any job is just a way to kill time until your debut novel comes out and pays off all your loans.
Your parents support you, but you can tell from the way they look at you that they’re worried. They don’t want you to be like them, arguing over which bills to pay late while their daughter sits at the top of the stairs and listens. They don’t want you to have a child who worries if she can afford to go back to college for her senior year. They say they just want you to be happy, but you know it’s hard to be happy when you might lose your house at any moment.
You stay up until 3:00am writing your novel because it’s the only consistent source of happiness in your life, but every day it seems more pointless. You’re better off selling short stories or making Youtube videos to build your platform. No one will read your first novel because no one knows you, and no one cares who you are.
You decide to become a translator. You even get the “Declaration of Major” form from the Chinese department and check the blasphemous box saying “Cancel My Previous Major.” You’ll switch legal documents from Spanish to English to Chinese and back again, making enough to pay off your loans in 5 years instead of 15. You think of your post-graduation apartment, this time not the size of a large port-o-potty but a small bedroom with hot water and free parking. You imagine buying your first car and taking vacations to Thailand, drinking Mango juice on the beach.
You also imagine your characters, like insects trapped in amber, frozen in their journeys on the day you closed the word document and never opened it again. You see yourself at age 30, looking away as you pass every book store, hating the author’s names printed on the dust jackets. Even though you stop writing, your novel plays out like a movie in your dreams. Storm clouds still rumble in your brain, but this time the question is different. They no longer ask, “What if you don’t make it?” but “What if you do?”
You throw the “Declaration of Major” form in the recycling bin.
You realize that if a 2055 version of you got in a time machine and appeared in your bedroom to say, “No one but your Mom will buy your books. Critics will say your first novel is better as toilet paper than reading material,” you would still write. While you would love for the world to read your stories, you don’t write for other people. You write because you simply cannot imagine a life in which you are not a writer.
This realization is liberating. The daunting question of “Will I ever make it?” becomes irrelevant when you realize that fame is a byproduct, not a cause, of happiness.
It’s 1:00am. You sit back down at your computer and vow to never abandon your characters again. You have another cup of coffee and continue writing, delirious with hope.
This blog post/story/article is hypothetical. Details do not necessarily reflect my own experiences.