On Being a Failed Writer

At the age of 50, I am a failed writer. Except for a few articles on CounterPunch, everything I’ve published has been self-published. I’ve worked tens of thousands of hours, written hundreds of thousands of words, and have never made a dime. Had I spent the same amount of time at a minimum wage retail job, I’d be rich, or at least a shift-supervisor at Starbucks. I haven’t been able to find an audience. You probably won’t even read this.

So why don’t I quit?

I tried. From the age of 25 to the age of 50, I had one goal In life, to cure myself of the urge to write. But I failed. Let me explain.

The urge to write should never be confused with the ability to make a living by writing, or even the ability to express yourself by putting words down on paper. T. S. Eliot is rumored to have answered the suggestion that “most editors are failed writers” with the quip that “yes, but so are most writers.” For many working journalists, writing is both a day job, and an impossible dream. Most people at Buzzfeed don’t want to be writing listicles. I doubt even the most cynical daily newspaper reporter grew up dreaming that someday he would be writing hit pieces on a mentally ill homeless man for the New York Post, or smearing a teenager the local police for the Indianapolis Star to protect the local police. It’s simply a way to pay the bills until the big story that will make you another Woodward or Bernstein comes along, or until a Hollywood studio buys your film script. I am not being a moral scold. If I had the social connections to get hired by Vice, Buzzfeed, or the NY Post, I’d probably jump at the opportunity. What’s more, some of the best writers in American history have written for money, and only for money. Ulysses Grant, for example, started writing his memoirs in 1884 after he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Sick, destitute after losing most of his assets in a Ponzi scheme, the 18th President of the United States wrote mainly to to pay old debts, and to leave enough money left over to provide for his wife and family. Yet the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant remains the greatest autobiography ever written by an American President. It’s so good that, to this day, there are conspiracy theories that it had actually been ghostwritten by his good friend Mark Twain.

In my mid-20s, I decided to become a novelist, mainly because I realized I was unfit to do anything else. For a middle-aged man, 25 seems young, but let’s face it. If you’re not already on a solid career track, or have some kind of specialized, highly sought after skill, you’re going to end up struggling for the rest of your life. I’m 50 years old, but 25 doesn’t even seem that long ago. It feels like yesterday. Not only had I run out of career options, I had never had very many in the first place. I had been slotted. I had found my place, and I didn’t like it. I was already picking up the pieces of my broken life, wondering what happened.

For most of my childhood, I had planned to join the United States Marine Corps, just like my father. I gave up on the idea when I became socialist in college. How could I make a career out of defending the American empire?

Note: I was also soft, and weak. A summer at McGuire Air Force base at a Civil Air Patrol encampment had already convinced me that I wasn’t cut out for the military life. But “I declined to serve the interests of American imperialism” sounds much better than “I was scared that when I got to basic training the other guys would call me a fag and beat me up.” So that’s the version of the story I usually tell.

Later on, I toyed with the idea of becoming a high school English teacher or a college professor, but I had been miserable in high-school. Why would I have wanted to spend the rest of my life in a place I already knew I hated? Tenure at Harvard would have been great. But I couldn’t even understand Foucault or Derrida, let alone teach them. I did not have the academic ability to become a lawyer, or the temperament to become a political activist. So at the age of 23, I dropped out of graduate school, and got an entry-level job as a “Production Editor” for a small, scientific publishing in New York City. I made a little under $15,000/yr preparing scientific manuscripts to be published in books that almost nobody would ever read.

It didn’t take me very long to decide that since I was unlikely to get a better job, I could at least have a better identity. “Writer” sounded good, but there was only one problem: I couldn’t write. Not a novel, not an essay, not a review, not a short story. I could barely even write a note on a birthday card. Indeed, I spent most of my 20s thinking of myself as a writer, but unable to come up with anything much more than a diary, which I’m glad I lost. The only thing I remember about it is that it wasn’t worth keeping. I had a massive case of writer’s block, which correlated to my inability to relate to other people, or get my life together. Nevertheless, not being able to write was a good also excuse to stay put. My entry-level publishing job didn’t pay much, and it didn’t have much room for advancement, but it also didn’t involve much work. The hours were steady, and I never had to worry about getting cheated out of my wages. These days it almost seems like a good job. In any event, I decided that since I didn’t know how to write, I would use the time after work to teach myself how to write. Progress was slow, but I did make it. I read just about everything I could, and did manage to fill in the gaps in my education that I had noticed during my abortive two years of graduate school. Eventually I found my subject, failure. I identified with the narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, and with the hero of George Orwell’s early novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Unlike Orwell’s Gordon Comstock, however, I couldn’t find a way back into the lower-middle-class, and unlike Dostoevsky’s underground man, I couldn’t make failure sound interesting.

So I concluded that if I was going to write about failure, I had to fail a lot more.

After I got fired from my job as a Production Editor – It was a combination of incompetence and just a very obvious lack of interest in my work. – I failed at just about everything I tried. I couldn’t make friends, establish a relationship with a woman, break away from, or maintain friendly relations with my parents, complete psychoanalysis, or hold a job. Over the next few years, I worked as a telemarketer, fish gutter, a sheet metal worker, a data entry specialist at the last unionized textile company in Seattle, an administrative assistant, a sales associate at an office supply store, a sheet metal worker, a day laborer at a recycling plant, a low-level systems administrator for a small ISP, and a customer-service support technician for three failed e-commerce companies, and a barista at Starbucks.

The last job turned out be a lucky accident, since it provided me with the material for the first thing I ever wrote worth reading, a mildly successful knockoff of Notes from the Underground, a long short story called “How To Under Ring.” I am a bitter Starbucks barista, the “underground man” serving coffee and pulling espresso while I wait for the chance to be put on a cash register. Then I can follow his true calling of small-time embezzler and petty thief. How much is fiction, and how much is autobiography I leave to any readers, and potential employers, to decide. These days it seems dated, and almost cliché, and I can just see the typical social justice warrior’s reaction. “Angry young white male from a middle-class family hates his job and can’t get laid, so he acts like an asshole. Cry me a river.” But, at the time, actually finishing a short story felt like vindication.

I also concluded that since I had actually proven I could finish a piece of writing, but knew deep down inside that I didn’t really have much talent, I’d try in earnest to quit trying to write. But I failed. The biggest thing I failed at in my 30s and 40s was my renewed effort to quit writing. I studied programming and information technology, got certifications from Microsoft, Comptia, and Cisco. It worked for awhile. Jumping from one e-commerce job to another left me little time to think about writing, but then the bottom fell out of the tech industry in March of 2000. By the time the tech economy got going again, I was too old, and too poorly trained to get back in. I tried to replace writing fiction with a more harmless creative pursuit, photography, but I was even worse at photography than I was at writing fiction. Smart phones made professional photojournalists obsolete anyway. When George W. Bush was President, I threw myself into the anti-war movement and the pro-impeachment movements. But the Democrats took back control of Congress. Nancy Pelosi declared impeachment to be “off the table,” and when Barack Obama was elected President, the anti-war movement exited the political scene, stage right.

By the time I hit 45, I realized I would never quit writing, since to quit writing meant that I would have to succeed at something other than writing, and that would never happen. For 20 years, the more I had tried to quit writing, the more I had kept coming back to it. It was the only thing in my life that I ever stuck with, impossible to fail at, since it was identical with failure. When failure is writing and writing failure, how can you fail at writing? What’s more, while I didn’t actually like to write, I needed it, needed to write the way a heroin addict needs his fix. The reasons are the same. The heroin addict and the failed writer both want one thing, to be alone, to forget reality, and live inside his imagination. I would give up literature for heroin, if I could, but heroin is too expensive.

In 2011, my father died and I lost my last full-time job, both within a few weeks of each other. I also lost the writer’s block I had for most of my life. Suddenly, I could speak. I wrote a full length novel. I wrote over 500,000 words of film reviews, autobiographical essays, and opinion pieces about politics and history. At the age of 25, I could barely write my own name. At the age of 50, I can write just about anything I want. If there’s a thought somewhere in my head, I will eventually find a way to put it into words. If there’s a film or a book I want to review, a political event I want to analyze, childhood demons I want to banish from my memory by speaking their names, or a story I want to tell, nothing will stop me from doing it. The only problem is that good, steady low-paying jobs, with predictable schedules, and paychecks that show up on time every two weeks are a thing of the past. I always laugh at Charles Bukowski whenever I read Post Office. These days, working at the post office is the kind of “good job” left-wing Democrats like Bernie Sanders are always promising to bring back. The post office? Henry Chinaski, check your privilege.

In 2015, you can no longer become a failed writer because you’ve failed at everything else. Writing takes time. It takes leisure. It takes the ability to hack together a life where you’ve got a few hours every day to sit down at your desk, or at some table at some coffee shop somewhere, and not be disturbed. My employment options at age 50 are far more limited than they were at age 23, not only because the job market is so much worse now, but because I’ve already demonstrated to the world that I’m not a good employee. My credit is bad. My resume is spotty. The Internet is full of my self-published rantings. They will never go away. My next job, if I’m even lucky enough to get one, will have to be one of those “we’ll hire anybody who can pass the drug test” kind of jobs. I’ll be a temp worker at an Amazon warehouse, or a low-level retail worker “on call” who works for 15 hours a week, and worries his head off waiting to work for another 50. Maybe I’ll go back up to Alaska and gut fish. I’ll be that strange dude in his 50s with no hair and a grizzled beard, the guy all the college kids laugh at one moment, then speculate how many years he did before his parole the next. I don’t know what my next job will be, but I’m fairly sure it will leave me little time to read, and to write. In my 20s, I became a failed writer because I couldn’t do anything else. In my 50s, if I want to stay a failed writer, I’ll have to fight for it.

But it really doesn’t matter because I finally understand. I’m not a writer at all. I’ve never been. I never will be. I am exactly what I wrote my first real short story about, a small-time embezzler and a petty thief, only this time I don’t want to steal a few hundred dollars from a cash-register at Starbucks. I want to steal something far more valuable, time, the time to write, the time to read, the time to watch interesting art house movies with subtitles, and ride my bike through the mountains of Northwest New Jersey, to debate politics on the Internet. I am small time embezzler and a petty thief, stealing ticks of the clock back from capitalism. I will lie, freeload, cheat, steal, mooch off the government. I will do anything to fight back against being pressed into a routine that snuffs out my voice for good. I will continue to speak, even if I’m the only one listening. Henry David Thoreau once said that you cannot kill time without injuring eternity. I will do my best to spend the next 25 years of my life without injuring eternity.

But I will probably fail.

471 thoughts on “On Being a Failed Writer”

  1. I wonder how we know if we have failed. So many of our most respected artists were not respected when alive. When you have a voice and use it, are you a failure simply because not enough people hear or respond or identify with your voice?
    I guess it really depends on our definition of success. I think all one can do is write from the heart, expressing the subject matter that gives one passion.

  2. The written world of the writer either failed or successful…is always driven by the need to write…make the attempts to portray the tragedies, sadness, happiness, tears, struggles, desperation, smiles…all the abstract thoughts…feelings and make them touch the paper that not only paints the writer’s personal emotions but also paints the reader’s life in so many ways.
    Lots of respect to you and to your writings.

  3. I’m a freshman in college right now standing at a crossroads in my life, facing the choice to prepare for a “real world job” or purse what I really love doing, which in this case is writing. It’s refreshing reading the views of someone who does not bother romanticizing the notion of writing for a living. Writing is a love/hate relationship, and some can argue there is far more hate involved than love. An inspirational and great read.

  4. Failing at writing and failing to reach an audience are two very different things that are too often equated. I once did writing that captured millions of dollars in grants and contracts for my employer (and too little for me), but that writing has disappeared into history’s dust bins. What do we say of that kind of writing, of which there are mountainous streams? I remember walking through a remote part of a university research library, where the graduate dissertations of a 100 years of students lined shelf after shelf. Most of it hadn’t been read since the writer graduated, decades ago. Is that failed writing? It’s a big subject, and there should be no rush to judgement.

    1. I will consider a fail writing when the writer either doesn’t believe in the written piece or the reader doesn’t benefit of it,, what I just wrote is a clear failed writing especially when you comment on your teacher who tought how to write

  5. What a read. You’re like Bukowski, but with less stories about alcoholism, fist fights, shitty boarding houses, and colourful women.

    So, you’re Bukowski without the parts that made him interesting.

    1. I could drink more. But money for prostitutes might be hard to come by.

      I might half-ironically get up Kickstarter. “Help me buy sex and drugs so I can be a more interesting writer.” But I’d be surprised if someone hadn’t already thought of it first.

      In the end, though, I suppose I’m more like Orwell’s Gordon Comstock (a prissy middle-class failure) than I am like Bukowski (a rough working class one).

      I’m just going to have to go to Spain and fight fascism.

  6. You know what I sympathize totally before I go any further I am sick to death of using a z when the correct spelling of sypathise is spelled with as s. Yank spelling really pisses me off. Having got this irritant out of the way let me make a proposal. I need an editor who believes he is a failed writer (which you aren’t) because like you I seem to have failed at damn well near everything. I’ve got a book a completed book, which I am too shit scared to even put on a blog. American Editor Sam Sherman (yeah I know sounds like a movies producer) maybe he was? Here’s what he said and did:-

    “You want to write, you can’t right” “this is a 1000 page story” “Go back and write a story about a Detective who saves his girlfriend from being a victim of moslem (smart arses out there this is the derogatory spelling of muslim and a fg insult to them) thugs”

    We argued by email for about two months in the end I told him to piss off, I didn’t like his attitude. The downside is I haven’t written a word since until today addressing your brilliant blog. I have a WordPress page I think? I can tell you I seem unable to use the sight but I think you can get to me on my email address. If you are willing to work with another failed writer I guess you would be my best choice. Just hope I can afford you.

  7. This is incredibly inspiring and motivational in a cynical sense. Thank you for this, sir. I really needed this today.
    Perhaps I can try and find my way as a 23 year old “Failed Writer”

  8. Reblogged this on Get Resurgatized and commented:
    You haven’t failed if you can read your own words and find they can affect you in some way or another. They certainly influenced me. What could I have to offer you, someone will such experience, and such knowledge to pass down..I respect you, and I share your view, in my most humble way.

  9. Loved reading your story man. I too seemed to have spent the past 15 years writing stories that no one will ever read. I’m now 33, have drifted from minimum paid job to minimum paid job, scraping a living, unable to apply myself to a career, because the only thing I wanna be is a published novelist. After each short novel I tell
    Myself ‘that’s it, no more. I’m done.’ A few months drift by, until one day I find myself with a sly smile reaching for the pen, picking up a notebook, and so begins another story in my back catalogue of unpublished works. But what happens during this process, as I scribble down my ideas over coffee, or on the bus to
    A job I loathe, is that the fire has been lit once again. Suddenly I realise why I write: it’s all
    I have. The only thing I know how to
    Do, the only thing that helps light the way on the long road of mediocrity.

  10. Thanks for writing this. I feel your pain and envy your breakthrough. I got an E in college from Seamus Heaney in a composition class and was told early in my 20s, I had no talent. Yet I kept trying. Taught myself grammar all over. Read books about how to write, even chose a lucrative profession (investor relations) just to sneak in writing on the side but then was too overwhelmed with writing boring earnings press releases and conference call scripts to continue in it. I then was self employed for seven years but wasn’t able to make money in my passion and had a mental breakdown. I am now approaching 50 and am starting all over again at the bottom. As a receptionist. The stakes are getting higher, as survival supersedes purpose sometimes; but when I ask myself what is there left to do before I die, it is always still to pen my memoir. No matter how much failure I have to admit to being in doing so.

  11. This is one of the most revealing and heartfelt pieces I ever read on WordPress. Very good.

    I have ambitions to be a writer as well. I think it’s out of an urge to constantly write. Writing just eases me as a person. Something, other tasks don’t do the same way. I think I’ll just stick to writing reviews on foreign movies for a good while.

    I’m 23 right now as well funny enough.

  12. Have you ever tried prayer writing. If you dont believe in God then it might not work but if you do then it might possibly bring some real results.

  13. Only very little writing (or music-making, or any other kind of art) has any consequence or value in our capitalist way of life, when it accidentally fits into some way of making money. The vast majority of artistic activity is by that measure failure. It is as unconsequential as thought, or prayer, or conversation.

  14. A few articles in CounterPunch would make me proud.

    Seriously. In my eyes – that’s still a level of success. I would be happy with that.

    I know people who’ve achieved less (in my case, much less). I hope the author reads this.

  15. My late cousin Lloyd Robb gave his premiere concert at Town Hall hoping to launch his career in NYC as an opera singer. He had the bad luck of contracting laryngitis the night before, compounded by the NY Times sending the critic who had panned Nureyev to do the review. After this guy eviscerated his performance, which as a 14 year old I thought was lovely, he and his wife relocated to Winchester Virginia where he was hired to teach voice at the Shendoah Conservatory. He had a wonderful life there and was beloved by his students and faculty as well as the conservative congregation where he was cantor for many years.

    I totally relate to your experience of writing after your father’s death in 2011. My mother died in July 2011, and for me, the floodgates opened. I was able to write about anything and everything, fearlessly. I wrote and expressed myself on topics I had been silent about for years, and about experiences I was too afraid to share. I wish I’d had that confidence at age 25, but I didn’t. I had what someone once referred to as a “very long apprenticeship”. The same could be said of my law career.

    It’s never too late to have a happy childhood (I forget who said this). The world is full of late bloomers, notwithstanding F. Scott Fitzgerald’s pronouncement that there are no second acts in American lives. For every Freddie Prize, Jimi Hendrix (and for that matter, the rest of the “27 club”) and Buddy Holly, there are an equal number of Grandma Moseses. Speaking of Nureyev, to make it in ballet, virtually all parents start their children taking dance lessons by age 5 or 6. Nureyev did not begin to study dance until he was 17.

    My dear friend in Washington, Julia Burger, produced a documentary on creativity in older persons that featured a 109 year old pianist who composed an amazing concerto when he was 99.

    I admire you perseverance. Thomas A. Edison said that success is 4% inspiration, 96% perspiration. Most of success is simply doing it over and over again. Practice does make perfect. I believe that’s what Malcolm Gladwell was writing about.

    I thought “How to Underring” was a sardonic masterpiece. I laughed my head off reading it and had to reread it several times. I felt as if I was standing over the cash register watching the receipts fly out.

    And your photographs are spectacular. Hope you keep on writing and putting your work out there.

  16. “You’re a fucking loser”, my type of character an honest loser too, well I’d rather have a coffee with a real loser than a pretend one and I’m sure there are plenty of pretty girls that would feel the same, try getting a prostitute for a girlfriend if your skint one that writes too, or a homeless one thats just as realistic, Jesus she might bum you a few bucks, if your good in bed and tell you some good stories while your both laying down looking up at the light bulb together after a nice bath planing the new plot out for the next million dollar seller, its that simple, you should try a writing partner buddy.

  17. As a 50 y/o failed writer myself I feel qualified to say that the real mediocrities are those with major publishing deals from either luck or prior celebrity. But unlike you I have no overriding compulsion to write. Indeed, I am considering deleting the eBooks I have on Amazon that I toiled for years to produce. The world does not deserve them. I am also a failed rock musician for my sins and currently unemployed and running low on funds. Oh, and no woman for ten years. I also suffer from general anxiety arising from years of lousy health and probably would struggle to perform in the sack anyway. I don’t kill myself because my mother is still alive, but I would not have the guts anyway. I wish you all the best. We are budding Salieri’s, not Mozart. The Lord gave us the longing but left us mute.

  18. Hi.
    I am a failed writer, after having written a book or work, literature and philosophy, one of the five most extensive, to my knowledge, of a single author and a single title of the world.
    Yo soy un escritor fracasado, después de haber escrito un libro u obra, de literatura y filosofia, uno de los cinco más extensos, que yo sepa, de un único autor y un único titulo, del mundo.

  19. Stanley: Thank you for writing this very interesting and memorable essay. (I think many of us writers would like or aspire to be known as ‘essay’ and not ‘article’ writers.) I am also originally from Northern New Jersey and am your age (one year shy) and by the standards I set when I dreamed of being a published writer as a young man in my early twenties essentially also a ‘failed writer.’ (I even wrote an essay on another writer, a poet, novelist and non-fiction writer and a playwright from the nineteenth century from the Philadelphia-area who continued to publish his own books for three decades despite being hardly read at all, Algernon Sydney Logan. I think that only a few friends and family members have actually read it.) I think the one important thing that I and I think other writers perhaps also have discovered through this process of unending ‘failure’ is that essentially it is when you finally write a piece that is entirely and intrinsically from your own heart and mind and is not actually intended to be read by others, at least within the writing process itself, that one finally finds something meaningful and permanent and of human value. At least that has been the case with me. We all write to be read by others and also seek both self-affirmation and readers’ affirmation but the writing that seems to be the most important and lasting and memorable for ourselves when we look back on them are those writings that arrived directly from our own individual hearts and minds and are ultimately intended for ourselves. Best Wishes to You and to Every Writer with your writing!

  20. It’s like you jumped into my brain and lived my very own life. Can relate to pretty much everything in this piece. Great piece. If you achieve nothing else then at least you’ve captured a lifestyle/existence perfectly. Thanks for voicing it. Again, great piece!

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