[The Writer's Life] Living the Dream

When I was a young girl, my dream of being a writer looked like this: Suggesting a young Audrey Hepburn, I would stroll down 5th Avenue into Washington Square Park with my hip, scuffed leather satchel slung over my shoulder, on the way home to my bohemian, third-floor flat. (Other people lived in apartments. Writers lived in flats. With terraces.) Obviously I had just been to my publisher’s office and they'd handed me a huge check, which I promptly deposited in the bank. After some window-shopping at some of the bookstores prominently displaying my novel, I would head home to work on my next book. Once there, I drank coffee and smoked cigarettes (my dream began when smoking was still cool) and typed away on my typewriter, often staring philosophically out of the window at the New York skyline. (What’s that? The New York skyline isn’t visible from a third-floor walkup? It was in my dream!) And I was alone. I didn’t have to go into an office, or see people, or talk to anyone on the phone. I wrote the books, Random House sent the money. That was how it was going to work.

Except it didn’t.

I suspect most writers out there--established, new, young, or old--have harbored a similar fantasy. I suspect this because I know a bunch of other writers and we are not an outgoing bunch. We tend to want our alone time, our quiet time, our alone time (did I say that twice?) because it is so important to us. We’re introverts masquerading as extroverts, and to recharge we need to be alone. We vant to be alone!

Writers, one might challenge, need to go out into the world. Otherwise, what the heck would we write about? The answer to this question is provided by none other than Franz Kafka: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

Whew. Thank goodness.

But this is not completely true today, is it? In today’s dream, we writers have to create platforms. In the old dream, platforms were shoes. In the new dream, it’s Facebook, Twitter, videos, and e-mails. We need to go out into the world, talk to people, and entice them back into our slightly cluttered, candle-scented, cat-friendly virtual refuge where we will give them sample chapters, free Kindle versions, and downloadable PDF bookmarks. There are such things as blog tours and video book trailers and self-promotion. The only self-anything I’m good at is being by myself.

Before I start painting all writers with the broad recluse brush, I will admit I am often able to attend public functions, and I can usually maintain eye contact during conversations with most people. And I became a writer because I was compelled to, not because it seemed like a lucrative career choice. As Charles Bukowski advised, “If you're doing it for money or fame, don't do it.” My early dream was my writer’s will tricking me into believing it would happen because I couldn’t do anything else but write. If I'd known what I was in for, I would have taken accounting classes in college instead of the myriad courses I have on my transcripts (Swedish, Photography, Analysis and Composition, Theater Makeup).

I think most writers like being alone because of our thin skins. We can be slightly sensitive and insecure, but that lays the groundwork for our intuition and imagination. We writers absorb wonder and awe and then give words to it so others can experience it, too.

I know I don’t speak for all writers, but I believe the tendency to crave solitude is innate in most among us. Solitude is regenerative and healing. It brings us solace and inspiration. Being able to integrate this into the writer I am today makes me more dimensional than the writer my early dream was communicating. Also, I am much older and clearly not planning to pack up and move to The City.

So, no Greenwich Village flat. No checks from Random House. That’s okay. I don’t look like Audrey Hepburn anyway.

What was your early writer’s fantasy? How did it fuel your dream?

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  • As I suspected, I am not the only one with a writer's fantasy - thank goodness! I am loving hearing about them all!

  • Cecly Ann Mitchell

    I fancied myself hoping through Latin America and every Caribbean island, with nothing but the rich regional sights and sounds to keep my company while I chatted up local print and and broadcast journalist  and researched and write my novels. I've done my fair share of travelling, researching and writing but I haven't yet got that nomadic urge satisfied; and Latin America is still calling my name; loudly! :) 

  • Mary Adler

    I imagined myself reading intelligent letters from readers of my book and answering them on my lovely stationery. Real letters -- not email. Outside of that, I fantasized glowing reviews in the New York Times Sunday Book section and my being suitably humble about them. Oh well. The reality is that I am so so grateful to have finished the book and know soon I will be able to hold it in my hand. I am a lover of solitude and the company of dogs. But also enjoy the people I know. It's the strangers I'm not sure about. But I am working on adopting the attitude of a friend of mine who has, in her words, never met a stranger.

  • Julie Luek

    Cindy-- your comment below made me laugh. Then we all thought about being on Oprah, selected for her book club. Sigh. ;)

  • @Paula, I'm dating myself, but I imagined myself as Johnny Carson's guest author :) 

  • Pamela Olson

    Really, I just wanted to be on the Daily Show. In my really ambitious daydreams, I wondered who would play who in the movie. :) More seriously, though, I hoped a major American political figure would read it and recommend it, and start a new kind of conversation about American foreign policy in the Middle East...

    But yeah... "promoting" anything is such a drag -- even (or especially) if it's something you really believe in. Suddenly you're forced to use the same cheap tactics a luxury vacuum cleaner salesman uses (or that's how it feels sometimes anyway). I think the trick is to really, genuinely have no expectations. But good luck with that!

  • Kathleen Dexter

    I was a true recluse while I wrote my first book - my husband away working in Europe, four dogs and cats as my only company, our house basically an unfinished cabin in the middle of nowhere, no running water, no heat beyond a woodstove, electricity that was out as often as it was on and snowstorms that were making drifts up to my waist.  I've never again experienced such an uninterrupted, intense writing period.  I loved it!  I want to turn the clock back!

  • Rossandra White

    Well done, Cindy! I can definitely relate, thin skin, insecure, need solitude etc. And while I didn't exactly have a writer's dream, well, other than believing my first book was destined for the bestseller list, now, I'm hoping my third book makes a decent showing.

  • Fi Phillips Revising

    Interesting article. I had a writer's dream life too - slightly debauched and dog-eared - most of the debauchery was of the red wine and silk pyjamas variety. The reality of a writer's life has been much more mundane. I'm not a recluse, never have been, but yes, I get the need for solitude to write, and dream.