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their own publishing house imprints or racking up impressive titles like “global copy chief” while I was still an unpublished novelist chasing after part-time proofreading gigs that were rapidly being outsourced to India or eliminated altogether.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.
I just love this so perfect.
I loved reading this, and squirmed in recognition at so many of your points and pains. I recently had an essay on Full Grown People (“Reclaimed Ambition”: https://fullgrownpeople.com/2014/07/15/ambition/) about how my writing ambitions took over my life and started to ruin my relationships and my happiness in daily pleasures, and I had to learn to bring myself back to earth through woodworking. There’s something wrong with the way we approach this, but I don’t know exactly what it is or how to change it. Thank you for writing this, and for showing all of us there are other ways to live.
Thanks for sharing this. I’m of a similar age, and the “follow your dreams” adage starts to get more complicated for all sorts of reasons, doesn’t it?
Success redefined 🙂 I can see you writing again… this was great…
This post is so incredibly spectacular, and I thank you deeply for writing it and putting it out into the world 🙂 As a fellow writer of marginal success, I’ve found writing for fun or to express my experience is far more interesting than anything I got paid for. I’m overjoyed that you found another career that brings you so much happiness and fulfillment – the same thing happened with me and teaching Yoga. The creative journey is a long and winding one – you just never know where you’ll end up (and I might not have anything to do with being published!) 🙂
Great piece! I read so many book blogs, FB pages, and Publisher’s Lunch emails about everyone else’s deals and think, “How come everyone’s getting three-book deals except me?!?!??!” It’s so easy to forget that writing and publishing is HARD – even when you see a smiling photo of the latest 22-year-old wunderkind with a genius novel. So thank you for writing this! (I actually have published stuff but not in a long time, and so I always feel behind…this was a good wake-up call/reminder that it’s really so difficult.)
I can’t help but wonder if as you find peace with your mind/body/spirit if writing can become the creative release and personal super power it was before you measured your success through publishing. Because after years of judging my art by the gallery shows or my writing by where it ends up, early-mid-life is finally letting me do both things as an end to themselves. Which is joyous.
This was a very difficult article for me to read right now because I’m recognizing portions of my own experience. But, I’m SO glad you wrote about your experience. This is a very frank, brave piece of writing, and it’s a breath of fresh air. Thank you thank you!!
A “former” writer who just WROTE a wonderful piece! You are still a writer. You are just not a driven-to-publish writer, and as soneobe who has been pblished and then not, I know that is an even greater gift.
I absolutely love this! So much I don’t even have words. This is beautifully written and I wanted to laugh out loud and cry all at the same time. It did something to me. There’s something beautiful, commendable and real about chasing a dream, not getting there, realizing there’s something else that might work out even better and accepting that fact. Love it. Bookmarking this.
If you ever do get a book deal I would love to get a copy and read it. Wish I could give you a hug out of sheer appreciation for adding this piece to my life.
I, too, am a writer who became a Pilates instructor. I still write, but I’m trying to merge the two disciplines into some sort of satisfying career. After Pilates, I discovered my true passion, Circus Arts. What’s so funny is that, even as a mostly unsuccessful writer, I still got more approval than once I was working in fitness. Apparently, fitness equals stupid. Can’t people see that the physical and intellectual are related?
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Not so sure this writing thing is ready to let you go: I think you just discovered you have a supreme gift for creative nonfiction. Perhaps you were just living with the wrong genre. Divorce fiction. Cheat on it like you did right here. You’ve earned your freedom. Sleep around a bit with the personal essay while you are loving your new life. Date creative non-fiction. And then bless us all with a collection. I’d buy it. How smart and shiny you are…
I absolutely agree with you – this was a wonderful essay!
Have to agree with Mary…This was a wonderfully written article about the trials and tribulations of writing from a damn fine writer. You may have inadvertently found your niche.
As someone who is feeling her way to writing creative nonfiction as another, lifetime career ends, I was captivated by your piece but most of all by your writing. Quite compelling and beautifully done.
All I can say is, “Wow”.
What a touching journey to share, and beautifully written.
An ageless essay, for sure.
[…] finally, in what may be my absolute favorite online discovery this week, Alison Manheim writes on “Checking Out: A Writer Reboots in Midlife.” (Massive thanks to Anna Leahy for sharing […]