By Alison Manheim.
I like to say that as a writer, I failed at a very high level. I attended a well-known M.F.A program, ate the same sandwiches and carrot sticks that sustained Sylvia Plath and Patricia Highsmith decades earlier at a famous artist’s colony, and finished three manuscripts that elicited offers of representation from reputable literary agents. An annoying number of my friends are “real,” that is published, writers. My bookshelves are filled with signed copies of their novels and memoirs in which I (or my fictional counterpart) make a cameo appearance, often uttering the funniest lines.
Despite these bona fides, success as a writer continued to elude me. I squirmed through too many conversations with strangers at parties and on airplanes, dreading the moment when I told people I was a writer and they responded with the perfectly reasonable question, “Might I have read anything you’ve written?” I couldn’t bear to explain that after graduating from college in the early 90’s, I taught aerobics in New York City so I’d have time and energy to write. I felt sorry for friends who put aside their own dreams of being the next Lorrie Moore to take office jobs that paid $14,000 a year. What I didn’t count on was that two decades later, those same editorial assistants would be running their own publishing house imprints or racking up impressive titles like “global copy chief” while I was still an unpublished novelist chasing after part-time proofreading gigs that were rapidly being outsourced to India or eliminated altogether.
Why did I keep writing when for so long I derived no income and very little ego gratification? It was partly youthful hubris, or the idea that I might have something to say, and partly because the more time that passed, the more I couldn’t accept that all my effort had been for nothing. I was like a gambler on a losing streak, unwilling to walk away having left so many chips on the table and believing I was only one hand (or in my case, one manuscript) away from the big payout. I told myself that my eventual success would provide hope to my tribe of late-bloomers, whether they were fellow creatives–aging actors and artists who were tired of waiting tables–or Internet daters growing discouraged by their never-ending search for love.
Had writing been an expensive hobby like, say, dressage or collecting first-growth Bordeaux, I might have been forced to quit, but it required only pen and paper and, later, a MacBook. Nor was age an impediment for me, as it is for perennially aspiring ballerinas and shortstops. I was free to continue as long as my ego was willing to take the brutal hits that came every few years when my latest offering failed to sell to an editor at a publishing house. After each rejection, I’d vow to quit for good. I’d find a job in an allied field like public relations or advertising, only to leave after a few months or years to write full-time again. At one job, my terrible attitude (“What do you mean I have to show up at eight a.m. every Monday for a staff meeting? I’m a writer!”) finally got me fired. I remember thinking, “See you in the window of Barnes & Noble, suckers!” as I slunk out of that office with a cardboard box containing my NPR coffee mug and a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus.
By the time novel number three—this one about a Beverly Hills real estate agent battling both hot flashes and the economic downturn—was deemed unsalable, I was in my early 40’s and living in Los Angeles. By now, I was no one’s idea of a hot young writer (and the standards are pretty low for a “hot” writer). My then-agent relayed the bad news from New York in an e-mail in which she also let me know she was leaving the book business for an Internet start-up. Of course she was; books were so last century. The literary-industrial complex was being dismantled before my eyes. Amazon had long-ago displaced corner bookstores and e-books were overtaking paper. Publishing houses were merging, meaning that there were fewer places for agents to shop their clients’ wares. Meanwhile, the famous, grizzled writers I’d studied with in grad school, the ones I’d hoped would provide blurbs for my book when the time came, were dying of old age. How many more signs did I need?
My last failure was especially humiliating because I had taken the expensive step of hiring a freelance editor based in New York City to help me whip the manuscript into shape before submitting it to agents. In the note accompanying the first three chapters I wrote, “If after reading this sample you feel that this project probably isn’t destined for publication, I will gladly pay you for your time thus far and enroll in a Pilates instructor training course, pronto.” I was being flip. I might have written, “open a gluten-free bakery” or “start a vegan handbag line.” If I wasn’t good enough, I wanted to know. I should have realized that someone who made $175 an hour enabling would-be Jennifer Weiners wouldn’t want to pull the plug on a lucrative gig.
When this last novel failed (number three, but who’s counting?), I seethed for a bit, confident that the germ of an idea for a new project would soon surface. They always did. But this time instead of plunging into a retelling of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” set in present-day Malibu I decided I’d had enough. My ego might have weathered another book, but at 43, my body couldn’t do it anymore. I was so stiff from sitting at the keyboard that I saw my chiropractor more than I saw my best friends, and I required an hour and a half of yoga several times a week just to undo the rigors of writing. Spending the rest of my life with low-grade neck and shoulder pain while waiting for a reward that was unlikely to appear no longer appealed to me. At the same time, the actual writing hadn’t gotten any easier with time; if anything, it had gotten harder. Now that I was connected to the Internet 24/7, every “monkey-mind” thought that flitted into my head could be answered instantly via Google or Wikipedia, often dragging me down a rabbit-hole of lost productivity. The sustained concentration that had allowed me to be so prolific over the last two decades was getting harder and harder to muster. I had to accept that there would be no sepia-toned Marion Ettlinger photo of me on a book jacket looking dreamy and holding up my chin with one hand, not unless I commissioned it myself.
A few months later, I began a yearlong Pilates instructor-training course. I was apprehensive about learning a new trade in mid-life, particularly one that involved wearing Spandex pants and fitted tank tops. Most of the dozen other women (and one man) in my course were younger than me. One was a former Hooter’s waitress; another had worked as Lady Gaga’s personal assistant. There was no one with whom I could bemoan the state of print journalism or chew over the latest literary plagiarism scandal. When these gals did crack a book, it was more likely to be “50 Shades of Grey” (which was big that spring) than the latest Junot Diaz or Kate Atkinson. Despite this, they were without exception kind, energetic, and positive, and they shared my desire for a life that prioritized wellness and vitality over more traditional markers of success.
“This doesn’t mean you’re not a writer anymore,” people say to me all the time. They try to be helpful: “What about self-publishing? There’s hardly any stigma these days.” Or, “The important thing is that you finished it,” as if writing a book were simply an item to be crossed off a bucket list and not the linchpin around which I had arranged my entire life. They mean well, but they don’t get it. Writing and I are through.
Today I teach one-on-one Pilates sessions to new moms, Silicon Beach execs and senior citizens at a swanky gym near my home in Los Angeles. I joined Twitter and happily post 140-character Tweets to my few dozen followers. I don’t make a lot of money, but neither am I holding out for the big publishing deal or movie option that never arrives. Instead, I help clients feel better in their bodies and lay the groundwork for a long, active life. Practicing what I preach, I look and feel younger than I did when I spent my days hunched over a keyboard, trying to ignore the siren’s call of the refrigerator. Best of all, I’ve discovered that I enjoy reading for pleasure much more when I don’t start with the acknowledgments page at the back, looking for the names of people I used to know. Despite my nasty break-up with the literary world, my love of books and reading is intact. Maybe I’m not a failed writer after all. Maybe all this time, I was simply meant to be a reader instead.