Writing is not a profession. It is a spiritual whatsit. You do not write because you get paid to write. You write because you can't not write; because something within you cries to be heard, like a coyote yowling at the moon, or a house cat vomiting copiously on your pillow in the dark of night. There is that within you that must get out, like urine, with fear and trembling. Even as I tap on the keyboard right now, I would rather be doing something else—sleeping, for instance, or flying across the city to thwart injustice. But my calling calls, and I must answer. Alack!
This idea that writing is a spiritual whatsit, filled with passionate gnashing, is a popular one. People like to think that writing is awesome and special, which is probably why a recent poll in Britain found that fully 60% of respondents wanted to be authors. And authors like to be envied, which is why they so often use their writerly powers for purposes of self-mythologizing.
Look at Tim Lott's recent piece in The Guardian for example. Lott, responding to that poll about everyone wanting to be authors, pretends to be trying to discourage people by telling them how hard he has it. But in truth his essay is just a litany of the myths that make writing so attractive in the first place. "Writing is not a choice," he moans, "it is a calling," and he quotes Orwell: "One would never undertake [writing a book] if one were not driven on by some demon which one can neither resist nor understand." He adds that "writing novels for a living is hard—unimaginably hard, for those who have not tried it." Artists, in other words, are tortured, passionate critters, toiling at a mighty task. They're romantic heroes—and who, slaving away at a desk job, wouldn't prefer to be a romantic hero?
Well, I haven't written a novel, but I have written a book, and occasionally fiction, and I make a living by scribbling out words and sentences and the occasional paragraph. And I'm here to tell you that writers are not romantic heroes. I am not driven by a demon to write. I'm driven by a paycheck, mostly, and to some degree by inclination, and inertia—the same things that, in various proportions, drive people to be lawyers, coal miners, or dog sitters.
Writing can be hard and uncomfortable and precarious—but it's hard and uncomfortable and precarious in the way that any job can be hard and uncomfortable and precarious. A couple years back I had a minor seizure, probably from stress, and ended up staying overnight in the hospital. Was this because I was wrestling with demons and chopping great blocks of sense from a senseless universe? No; it was because my main client went bankrupt owing me $12,000 or so, and I was working frantically to try to make up the deficit.
Similarly, the worst part of my job is not that as a perfectionist artist I "live with failures." The worst part of my job is that I often have to do work that is ugly and unpleasant because if you want to get paid, ugly and unpleasant work is what you frequently do. You are told to write a 700 word piece on the dangers of texting, and you write the piece—every mind-numbing, tedious word of it—and the client looks at it and sends it back and tells you that you have made it too interesting for the students, could you please borify it by 53%? The marketing is pretty grim as well; as a freelancer you're constantly, constantly selling yourself to editors who are for the most part overworked, underpaid, and barely able to spare a minute to look at your pitch, much less respond to it. It isn't even the rejection that's painful so much as the endless, enforced self-vaunting. "Hey, look at me! My ideas are great! Pay me for them! Pay me for them! Please? Pay me?"
Not that writing is a particularly horrible way to make a living. For the most part I get to work on and think about things I'm interested in—that's a luxury most workers don't have. The point, though, is that when writing is unpleasant, it's unpleasant in the way that most jobs are unpleasant. To the extent that writing is awful, it's not because it's an agonized exercise in noble existential despair. It's awful because—whatever your profession—scrabbling after money can be tedious, humiliating, and stressful.
When people say they want to be writers, they're generally thinking of writing as an art, or a craft. And writing can be an art and a craft, just as there's art and craft in most human endeavors. But writing is also just a job, and not necessarily an especially glamorous one when you're writing work-for-hire business encyclopedia entries. If you want to be a writer, more power to you. But don't let Lott, or anyone, fool you into thinking that working as a writer is anything other than work.