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Notes from an Undiscovered and Under-loved Writer


The worst circumstance that can happen to a writer is to have a little success. Success leads to hope, and hope is a dangerous tool in the sweaty hands of a hungry writer. The “hope” I’m talking about is of the variety that makes you believe that you are on your way toward fame, or, worse yet, fools you into believing that you might be able to pay your rent and buy groceries in the same month. 

Success leads to laziness and eventually—if you don’t have ego checks like teenagers with pierced tongues, or a bevy of vengeful exes—to arrogance.

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“My criticism of the successful is not disguised jealousy.” Illustration by Josh Quick.

I know successful writers, and trust me: they are miserable creatures. There is no fight left in them. If you don’t believe me, just review any of the past annual New Yorker fiction issues, the editions that feature “our best young authors” smugly glaring at us in a photograph set against the New York skyline. Collectively they were saying, “We’ve made it. You haven’t. Sucks to be you.” 

But, truthfully, do they look happy, really happy? Oh, for the moment perhaps, but later after they cash those large checks, they will realize their lives will never be that good again. We know that it’s downhill from The New Yorker. Next stop, an unpaid guest column in “Street News.”

When a publisher accepts a manuscript a writer loses that critical edge. A big, fat acceptance under one’s belt leads to the satiated feeling one has after a large pasta Alfredo dinner and several glasses of Pinot Noir. Sleep overpowers you and soon you find yourself snoring and drooling on the couch while reruns of “Real Housewives of Orange County” flicker on the television.

Better to stay rejected, hungry, and on the edge of despair with a stack of rejection notes and a bottle of Ouzo on your night stand. 

Success leads to laziness, speaking engagements, six-week book tours (with free water!), and the countless television and radio appearances before hosts who have never read any book, let alone yours.

Writers feel at their best when they have just completed a manuscript and sent it off to a disinterested agent or editor. Rejection and, god forbid, acceptance, are months away. Satisfaction sets in, but not complacency. An astute writer knows that nothing is settled and the hard work must continue in vain. A blank screen whispers urgently from the back room. In the meantime, it is time to floss, vacuum, enter an online sweepstakes contest, and sign those alimony checks. 

At this stage of writing Purgatory, the writer remains edgy, hungry, and perhaps thirsty. He may enter a bar and order a drink, maybe several. In the olden days preceding the current popularity of sobriety and litigation, an idle writer might pick a fight with a rival. “Your sonnet sucks raw seagull eggs.” 

Now we sip caramel-flavored lattes and curse our competition on social media using assumed names. Not me, of course. Other people.

My criticism of the successful is not disguised jealousy. Far from it. I am internationally published, having appeared in print in Saskatchewan four times (boom!) in the 1980s. (OK, so it was poetry published in a journal. OK, so I had to purchase the journal.) 

No, my real gripe is this current trend toward overachieving. We were never supposed to be celebrities. We were never meant to appear on “CBS This Morning,” sip $200 bottles of Merlot, or eat stinky French cheese. Writers should be read and not heard, and never seen during daylight hours. 

Instead, I propose we get back to the basics—solitary longing, boxed wine, and Velveeta singles. A dysfunctional hermit-like existence not unlike an episode of “Hoarders.” We should be filling the pages of obscure journals bulging with piercing insights the public will never ever read. Instead of living at a fashionable Williamsburg address, we should stick to a seven-story walk-up in Newark with faulty door locks and a neighbor named Vinnie who needs a favor involving his ex-wife.

I, at least, am holding up my end of unrealized potential. I don’t plan to be successful until after I die. Delayed gratification is the sweetest reward (and revenge)—usually heavenly in its payoff. I know I’ll never be in a New Yorker photo-op, but I still have my pride. 

More importantly, I still cling to the knowledge that someone (preferable with solid contacts on the Avenue of Americas), somewhere might finally discover the genius hidden between the clever clichés in my workmanlike efforts. But, then, where would that get me?

Still looking to be a successful writer anyway? We’ve got some more great content for you. 

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Stephen J. Lyons (Guest Blogger)

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of four books of essays and journalism. His most recent book is Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling.