Aunt Acid: Advice for a Struggling Writer -The Toast

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Dear Aunt Acid,

How does one learn to readjust one’s expectations as relates to personal happiness and sense of achievement/fulfillment? For the past 3.5 years, I have worked a dull 9-5 with the assumption that it would be “temporary,” but it is looking less and less like that is the case. During that time, I have attended grad school full-time (never completed due to financial problems), bought a house (so I have to make a certain amount of money), and have attempted to pursue freelance writing on the side. 

I have always assumed I would be A Writer one day. Writing is something that I am good at, and I love to do it. But I have submitted to numerous online publications and have been met with a “no, thank you” every time. So now, in addition to the looming “What Am I Going To Do With My Life?,” there is also the “Am I Even A Good Writer?” My self-esteem is suffering big-time. 

I have also been applying to new jobs because the one I am at, frankly, is in no way challenging, is not in a field I find interesting, and requires a 3-hour round-trip commute.  But, the only jobs I seem “qualified” for are ones that are exactly the same, and I don’t want to be an EA for the rest of my life.

I’m completely lost. I can’t even talk about this with family and friends anymore, because I feel they have become weary of my disheartened outlook. I am almost 30, and while I know that it isn’t very old, it’s old enough that I would like to have some kind of career direction and fulfillment. Am I asking too much? Is there a way for me to realign what I want out of a career, even if that means being okay with picking up other people’s lunch every day until I die? At what point should I admit that I am not a strong enough writer to make it a career? Or do I just need a thicker skin? 

I am totally drowning here.  Please send help.


Dear Unpublished,

In twelfth grade, my writing teacher asked us students to give explanations of why we wrote. Instead of an essay, I turned in a sentence: “Because if I slit my wrists, words would come out.” Charming, my teacher told me drily. And, sure, yes: teenage melodrama. But come on. Who among us can articulate why we’re driven to create, except to say that we are overstuffed with thoughts, or images, or music? We write because we need to, because the pulse is there.

There are a thousand good reasons to write: because we are in constant and evolving dialogue with the past; because we want to help shape the future; because we are Harold with the purple crayon, escaping into boats and hot air balloons, and without that purple crayon we would be stuck in our bedrooms looking forlornly out our windows at the moon.

There is only one bad reason to write, and that’s for external validation. That’s because, even if you start getting some, you’ll never have enough. Praise is like money: no one ever feels satisfied that they’ve gotten their fair share. Almost no one has the strength to walk away from that particular roulette table. Most of us just stand there, addicts becoming zombies, compulsively putting down our think pieces on black or red and hoping our number comes up.

This is to say that no number of publications, no list of accolades, no CV will convince you you’re a Writer if, in your own mind, you aren’t one. Likewise, if you do know, in your own mind, that you’re a Writer, no amount of rejection can take that away.

I understand that right now, self-esteem-wise, you’re feeling on par with a half-eaten hot dog. In this state, it probably won’t help to tell yourself, “I am a Writer, no matter what anyone says.” What might help, though, is taking an altogether different approach. Forget trying to create content for the damn internet, which is a fickle beast anyway and impossible to satisfy. You’ve been trying to tempt it long enough; for whatever reason, it hasn’t been interested. Choose a new goal.

You don’t say you read. Read. Too many people these days think they can separate input from output. You cannot trust a writer who doesn’t love books any more than a woman who claims to be proud of not having any female friends. Read indiscriminately. Read widely. Read lit mags, fan fiction, epic poems, screenplays: any and all of it can inspire you.

You don’t say you’ve taken writing classes. Take classes. Is there a subgenre you’ve always wanted to try, like comedy or speech writing? Teachers have never been more available, whether online or in person. Find them. Find mentors. The good ones carry knives, to puncture your ego and help you whittle down your sentences.

Work at what you’re doing, really work at it, in concert with people you respect, and you will get better. Ultimately that’s what it’s about: work, verb and noun alike. That’s the part you can control. Not coincidentally, that’s the part you can feel proud of, no matter what happens after.

As for the larger issue: the life you always thought you’d lead hasn’t materialized, and instead your choices have led you into a cul-de-sac. That’s hard. It’s also normal. The good news is that almost 30 is young, definitely young enough to back yourself out of the cul-de-sac and head somewhere new. I know PhDs who have returned to school to become MDs, lawyers who have rebooted themselves as game designers, ballroom dancers who have waltzed into law. Everywhere I look, in fact, someone is shifting gears, retraining to be a nurse, or a midwife, or a therapist. Change is the new stasis.

You too can make a change. Start with a blank piece of paper and brainstorm everything you wish you could be doing instead of fetching people lunch. Write down the names and traits of the professionals you admire. List your own strengths. Recall the most fulfilling jobs or internships you’ve ever had and consider what they may have had in common. You’re looking for patterns, the data that will help you zoom in on the ideal combination of 1) what you like; 2) what you’re good at; and 3) what people will pay you to do.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either. Take people out to coffee – old bosses, good friends, acquaintances from LinkedIn – and listen to them: how they made it to where they are, what suggestions they may have for you. Be patient. Be open. A lot of what you’ll hear won’t be applicable, but some crucial part of it will pick a lock inside of you and help you better understand yourself, what you actually want, and what you can achieve.

It may feel like you’re drowning. In reality, you’re just in shock from and exhausted by the same cold, choppy water as the rest of us. Few of us expected adulting to be this hard, especially if we kind of hoped we’d be Margaret Atwood by now, so you’re in good company: not drowning, but waving. The thing is, just because something is hard doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, or that it’s not worth doing. So stop dog-paddling and go into a dead man’s float while you catch your breath for a moment and figure out what direction you want to go in. Then pick your head back up. Do the work. Swim.

–Aunt Acid

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