So You Want to Be a Writer?

Phil Christma:

That I would eventually teach college writing was a conclusion foregone, I suppose, as soon as I decided that I was “going to be a writer.” (Not “I was going to write” – that commitment to the process of actual making comes later.) This is true in the obvious sense that our culture doesn’t offer many careers that leave a (lucky; healthy; non-primary caregiver) person the time or energy to write three or four hours a day. But it’s true also in the far deeper sense that, once I had committed to Being A Writer, I immediately encountered a huge body of contradictory lore, and the ongoing mental exertion of harmonizing all that lore – how-to books; new-age inner-creative-child books; classic works on aesthetics and poetics; exhortatory books like John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist and life-coaching books like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; what writers said in interviews; what my teachers told me; what I absorbed from pop culture; last and least of all, my fanny-pack’s worth of firsthand experience – ensured that I would need to do something with all of it.

I am not sure why I settled on the idea. I had not read, at fifteen or sixteen, all that much serious literature – really just The Catcher in the Rye, a book I was too stupid to realize was indicting me by evoking the kind of identifying, idolizing love from me that it did. Most of what I read as a kid was fundamentalist propaganda; or comics; or Nancy Drew novels (I wanted to be her boyfriend); or, if I felt ambitious, sci-fi. In adolescence I added to these books about running and music magazines. I read slowly and badly, with a puny attention span and a kind of neurotic repetition-compulsion – over and over, in middle school, the same June 1989 issue of Batman; over and over, in high school, the same November 1995 Spin profile of Tori Amos. (I also wanted to be her boyfriend, after she had re-accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.) Most of the time, in high school, I did not read at all. I listened to music, and was depressed.