write it

What Drives Me to Write?

Photo-Illustration: by Preeti Kinha; Photos: Getty Images

Sometime in April, I spoke with a Zoom class of undergrads about my career as a writer, which to date comprises one published novel and a bunch of freelance essays. Afterward, one of the students emailed me and asked how to find a job that would lead to a writing career. I said that, in my personal experience, developing as a writer and having a job are two separate things, and suggested that she look for a job that either gave her as much money as possible or as much time as possible, with the caveat that finding a job that does both is likely impossible, and even getting one of those things is hard. I did not mention, because she knew, that unemployment was at the time approaching 20 percent, and jobs were dividing between “jobs that can kill you” and “jobs that let you stay safely at home.”

Advice is even more theoretical than usual this year. Advice about writing, a singular quixotic activity, can be hard to put into practice. When you’re a writer, it often feels like every hour is amateur hour. Treat it like a job and Divorce it utterly from all notions of a job: Both things are true.

I was able to become a writer because, among other reasons, I did not initially consider writing to be a job that someone could have. It did not align with the Craigslist ads, where my peers and I looked for paying work. But it is also true that, years later, I took writing from a cherished hobby to something I consider a profession because I asserted that writing would be how I spent part of the day.

This March, my full-time job became watching my 2- and 5-year-olds while my husband — the W-2 to my 1099 — works behind a closed door to earn the income that keeps us in housing and health insurance. I haven’t been working on my book, both because I am too burned out from being cooped up with small children all day, and because it has felt important to spend the time I do have on things for which I know I’ll be paid. Now, seeing the extent to which I am currently not writing, and feeling the swiftness with which time can accrue between one book and the next, I’m unable to render a coherent judgment about the idea of writing as a profession, except that it is something I want to do and am mostly not doing.

When I started writing as a hobby, I was 25 and had the energy and time and luxury to spend the day doing various non-difficult, non-writing jobs and then sit down on the couch with my laptop and a pile of books and spend hours on something that would pay $0 or $50, and which few people would read. It felt important to do this, even when it did not feel enjoyable. But it also felt enjoyable, or I wouldn’t have done it.

These days, the feeling of putting on my headphones and sitting down to paid work after my children go to bed transports me back to those earliest years. There are differences between this time and that time. When I first started writing regularly, I did not have a smartphone. I did read endless threads of contentious blog comments and felt I was throwing my life away, while also keeping abreast of the Zeitgeist; there is some continuity there with my relationship to Twitter now, but today the volume of material with which I can self-sabotage is much greater than it was a decade ago. My attention is fragmented to the extent that I worry I don’t have the possibility of deep, focused work in me any longer. I have responsibilities now that were completely alien when I first started writing, although these responsibilities have given me much more than they have taken.

I feel thwarted in my writing currently, but it is part of a more generalized misery. The benchmark for untenable feelings of professional impotence was set a few years ago, when I had finally leveraged my domestic arrangement to make writing look more like a job — when I had started writing a novel and wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to finish or sell it. During that period, I remember standing in the shower, nearly weeping with desperation for my book to be done. I have never wanted anything else in quite the same way. There was something both abject and muscular to the wanting, one aspect that felt unseemly — like pride and vanity — and another one more connected to survival, to the promise of relief.

After I published that book, nearly two years ago, the yearning disappeared, replaced by other kinds of unpleasant feelings that surprised me with their intensity and then finally gave way, just before the pandemic, to a feeling of peace. I have only started to see how much writing that book was an act of expelling the hair balls of my own psyche, and to try and parse out the feelings that attach to writing from the feelings that attach to the business of publishing a book and everything that goes with it. I don’t stand in the shower and just yearn to finish this book the way I did before. But I do think that kind of desperate wanting is, to some extent, an artesian well—it doesn’t go away once you have done the thing you wanted.

I reject any rhetoric of silver linings to the pandemic. What’s a word that’s like “but” or “yet” or “however” or “although,” but isn’t exactly any of those words? Now I have the nostalgia of the looming deadline and the panicked thesaurus search. Let’s put it this way: I hate the pandemic, and also I am getting back to basics. Once I began to spend all day with my children and it was clear that it would be impossible to finish a book anytime soon, it became easier to hedge my bets, to try and make the desire more diffuse and less painful. I think less about if and how writing can continue to be a “job” in the way it briefly was, and more about how and why I want to express the things that feel so urgent — things as quantifiably inconsequential as describing the way a certain room smelled in a certain city in a certain year. That my vocation and my profession have ever overlapped is a gift. What matters is how to keep going.

Lydia Kiesling is the author of The Golden State.

What Drives Me to Write?