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.

469 comments

  1. This was a good start to my Monday! I’m going to embrace my own failure as a writer. At 32 it’s uphill or downhill from here, writing wise, depending on how you look at it. Thank you for the thoughts and the Gordon Comstock reference, he’s too often overlooked. Seriously though, thank you!

    1. re: “Gordon Comstock reference”

      Gordon was me in my 20s, only British and a chain smoker.

  2. Thank you for writing this. It´s very important for me because normally I don´t read so much about failure. Most story are success-story’s more or less. So, I find your thoughts very important and touching. I´m 43 and also a failed writer. I write because there´s nothing else I wanna do. I´m also a failed philosopher. But still I like the idea of being non-conformist, not successful, not a valuable member of capitalist madness. So, I really like to congratulate you to your choice!

    1. re: I´m also a failed philosopher.

      Can you be a failed philosopher? You can certainly be an unemployed philosopher.

  3. Is it okay for you if I reblog your post in my blog?

    1. Yes. I not only welcome it. I encourage it.

  4. weebluebirdie · · Reply

    I’m walking up the hill to that significant number, I’m close enough to look it in the eye and go “Boo!” It’s very likely that I’m more than halfway through my allotted time; which does give me a enough of a jolt to switch off the mind numbing game I play on my tablet. I tell myself that all that pattern matching must be good for the brain, is bound to ward off Alzheimer’s. Of course, it’s just my form of self-medicating, a way of warding off the thought that I might have failed. But I’m not giving in, just switching off one gadget at a time, and opening the the valve to let a few words flow through.

  5. I can’t quite see how failure is better than death. I’ve heard that some ghost writers can’t scare up any reaction at all. Oh, sorry, I guess a new word needs to be coined. I mean dead writers who keep writing even though no one is spooked. Most psychic channelers refuse to write down their words. Occasionally, someone starts a religion based on what they think they’ve heard from the dead-writer ghost, but that takes thousands of years, and it doesn’t usually go well, and when he is joined by ghosts who are his victims, they’re usually a little mad and mad. Of course, he could be reincarnated, but what would be the point — a bigger failure. Becoming a tyrant might work if one could dictate mandatory reading and reciting of the Dictator’s book, but how many laughing readers can be executed before it gets to be very tiresome. But all in all, death is better than writing. “All life’s a stage, and dying on stage is easy,[but] comedy is a hard body of knowledge to raise like a specter whose parts stand erect in the play which is the thing…”

  6. Purple People Breeder · · Reply

    Your really not that failed with over 200 likes and 90 and some comments here. What hope does a blogger like me have then?

  7. Somehow I can relate this with myself. As I am now 23 and start

  8. Somehow I can relate this to myself. As I am a 23 and can see much far forward because of this reading. You succesfully made an article that inspires me and enjoyable. Thanks a lot sir.

    1. Ditto, except I am unfortunately 37. I can kill time and injure eternity with the best of them — naturally with absolutely no good reason to do so. In fact, I am frequently hit with decent — een great — ideas for new blog topics,original articles in the advocacy movement in which I am involved in. Yet something prevents me from acting on the most essential task in pulling thee ideas together into something that can be published: STARTING. Awful. Totally open to advice on this problem of what I think of as compulsive avoidance of sorts…

  9. Yes now I am afraid of what it is going to be next as I grow old , am 21 now . I have a wide imagination on why were we created, I doubt that We are created by X (unknown) and tested in large numbers . We were put into this earth by X as an experiment! You know we are always monitored by the superior. Mystery with me is I have good hand writing and I don’t knowing how to write or Narrate something.My nightmare is My Thoughts on papers . Am afraid !

  10. […] Source: On Being a Failed Writer […]

  11. A beautiful thought well written! Will definitely work as a source of inspiration for almost every struggling writer out there. Thanks for writing this amazing piece.

  12. Thanks a lot for sharing your story with us. I think your experience made a good story and is now inspiring many readers. I think it is not a failure, it is a success. I don’t know what I am going to do as I am 28 now with my 2 degrees but no significant success or any continuity in professional life (I tried admin work at the university, did sales, waitressing, interned and NGOs etc.). Nothing really worked and nothing really inspires me except the idea of writing. At the same time I fear it and that fear freezes me and does not allow to move on. However, I am very optimistic and I believe it is worthless to look back to the past and regret about it. It is the time to think what can I do from now in order to get what I want. Never stop believing in yourself! Good luck with getting the best ideas and making your dreams come true!

  13. i was reading this and i was cursing (in a good way though) read it so fast my carrot head was spining. I feel really encouraged to keep writing my stupid things

  14. A good read. Thank you. Continue with your dreams.

  15. really nice. i also want to become a writer but not to earn money i want to express my feelings by writing for now i am just trying writing as good as i can may be one day i will pursue my dream..

  16. This is a great post. It’s wonderful how its nudged me. Fail, fail again, fail better, fail best but never stop. At your worst is when you succeed. Thank You for writing this.

  17. This was wonderfully intriguing! I can relate to the writer’s block inhibiting other aspects of life. Glad you stuck it out! Your words are worth the read

  18. مشاهدة “What is Islam ما هو الاسلام” على YouTube

    1. The prophet was not a failed writer.

      1. Your muslim?

  19. Hmm. this is a good piece. I just started writing and i’m already scared that I may not succeed. Seeing someone who has worked at it for more than 20 years and not give up is something. in fact its more than something. I write because I love to and I want my voice to be heard. like the heroine addict i’m becoming an addict of some sorts to writing. However, I wish I can succeed at this.

  20. Awesome.. You made me fall in love with your style of writing sir..and to correct not a failed writer instead a loved one.. Having just that passion and belief in what you write makes you successful.. And the judgement of the world is really small infront of our soul satisfaction.. Go on writing.. 🙂

  21. A writer need to involve in every character of his writngs

  22. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, what matter is are you writing the truth…..

  23. First thing I’ve read on WordPress and I loved it! You are far from a failed writer in my eyes! It all depends what you judge your success or failure on. I edit websites for a living and make decent money but would I take a 50% paycut to be able to write and publish my own stuff? Yep, in a hot minute. I think for those of us who love to write and read both are cathartic whether or not they are useful to anyone else. Keep going!

  24. DisputingNonsense · · Reply

    Interesting read. Thank you.

    Best wishes.

  25. It’s really depressing. I feel like you’re pointing out all of my weaknesses, incompetency of doing something, and not to mention the absence of life skills.
    But maybe this is what i need, a sucker punch on my face. Thank you for sharing the beauty, sir. Really encouraging. Thank you

  26. christopherdutton56christopherdutton56 · · Reply

    “The heroin addict and the failed writer both want one thing, to be alone, to forget reality, and live inside his imagination.”…my life…thank you..

  27. […] Source: On Being a Failed Writer […]

  28. “before you shine like a sun first burn like a sun”….time is your assets that u invest for writings…..so keep writing

  29. This was a good post. If this is failure at writing, I am beyond saving. Actually, I don’t think my posts are that bad, after they have been looked at and proofread by another of course. I try to write in my blog what seems interesting or to express an interest, but I’m never sure if it comes across to the reader. This was, contrary to maybe your intention, an inspiring piece, at least to me.

  30. I Have an addiction to writing, but i don’t know what should i write about, and that made very confused and annoyed all the time.

  31. An amazing story. It is hard to lump you with failures man but I really, sincerely wished I had the magic power to give you all the time you needed. Forget the destination, your journey is far more exciting than all the destinations I reached my whole life.

  32. Inspiring all these people who read your your blog doesn’t make you a failed writer! I think you are excellent writer to people who actually care about writing like us. They rest of the world just doesn’t understand

  33. You put all the aspiring writer’s miseries into words beautifully. And I can’t quite imagine you as a failed writer as you write so well.

  34. Reblogged this on Everyday Voices and commented:
    As bizarre as this sounds, I feel hopeful after reading this blog. I am not yet 50 but I am also a ‘failed’ writer. I’ve never published anything, I was never paid to write anything and I run a blog that almost no one reads. But I will press on and write about anything and everything that comes to my mind. There is something ‘noble’ about this kind of ‘failure’. I will persevere and press on because it’s what I do and I am in a privileged position to do so. There are many who are denied the privilege and the right to express their thoughts freely.

  35. Ah … and there you go, forcing us to see the Emperor’s nudity when we were so enjoying our delusions. 7 billion-plus people on the planet. Seems like half of them want to be writers. (Bloody Internet.) But isn’t that just another way of saying “dreamer/artist?” And isn’t that part of what being human is? I believe it’s built in to most of us. Like hunger, desire. We are helplessly imprisoned in our heads … yet, we can spend a moment in someone else’s–through a poem, an essay, a film, a novel, a short story, a painting, a sketch, a sculpture … even a freakin’ blog post that two people read. Or twenty. Or one hundred. We are doing what we are MEANT to do when we write, even if it ends up being exclusively for ourselves. Yep, I wanna write something amazing that blazes its way into the souls of the masses, makes them weep, laugh, dream, hope, despair … and I’m going to keep trying. Against all friggin’ odds. ‘Cause that’s what writers do. Thanks for the reminder, my friend. Fail along with us!

    1. I think it might mean that the Internet has fully democratized publishing but not distribution.

      Before 1995, you didn’t get read unless a newspaper or publishing house accepted you. Now you can get read by small numbers of people. But the Internet is still dominated by a small number of big sites backed by corporate money.

      I also think branding is an issue. People who get read online tend to be able to brand themselves. Branding (personal or otherwise) goes against the very idea of being literate.

  36. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts. It made me think about other career and jobs that like, if you really, think about it, philosophically speaking, you can never fail if you’re doing it. If you write, you’re a writer, despite how many people read or buy your work. You’re still a writer, just not a wealthy one. The same could be said for a musician or other artist. I’m in my early twenties and kind of feel the way you did, like after school what’s next?

    1. It’s always easy to say “do more” but I remember that, in my early 20s, I was always broke, coming home from work every day so tired I didn’t feel particularly inspired to do anything.

      I think the Occupy movement was a start.

      https://writerswithoutmoney.com/2015/09/04/the-revolution-that-got-away-occupy-wall-street-four-years-on/

      For a short time, people were able to build a community that didn’t depend on money. I think the creative arts these days, like everything else, have been swallowed by a monied elite. We need to break corporate control of music, publishing, the arts.

      The Internet is a beginning, but people haven’t gone far enough.

      1. That is sort of like my problem now. I would love to just focus on being creative, writing, making art, helping people but even working 40 plus hours a week I’m still broke. Because of the expense of my medical bills I had to leave the profession that I love to make an attempt to get insurance to pay for a life saving surgery, at any rate. As free as the internet has made some art, it is still out of the grasp of most. I just think of one of my goals of writing and recording an album. To record on more than just youtube I need equipment and software to make it listenable. It would be awesome to be able to like, check that stuff out from a public library or from my university library. Or even have a place available to the public to use it there. Maybe one day.

  37. I love the raw honesty with which you write this. It’s rendered me speechless. Ultimately, we want to be heard and have the luxury of time to make all the noise, statements, manifestos we can make! But really, it’s the leisure of time that we really want… to be able to do things, to fail at things, or just…. to be. Excellent! Thank you for posting and sharing your thoughts.

  38. This was beautiful, sir. 🙂

  39. blog’s like this make me feel like a better person.That’s all.

  40. I started reading the first few lines and couldn’t stop! What a powerful post to read.

  41. You’ve succeeded in following your heart. A lot of folks go through life not knowing what they love. A lot of people get stuck in the “rat race” that they often forget that they are human. Most office workers would tell you that they find no joy in their work, it pays the bills but they are lifeless. Passion drives you. Money does not. However, money helps. I’ve learned that in life I should make compromise. It is a balance act. And congratulations on this piece. I think your writing is h0nest and inspiring.

  42. And you failed to write this piece badly 🙂 even though some parts were depressing…I really like it and find your journey inspiring. And from my point of view, what makes a good writer is honesty.

  43. I have been reading this along with you too. And I know maybe I am what you described above, I believe that everything is possible. But look at how many viewers you have attracted and how many had the desire to comment. if you havent been a good writer, people wouldnt have been left touched by your words. In fact you touched me so much that I want to read on. And want to read your first story too. Please don’t give up. Van Gogh havent sold a single painting when he was alive and now his paintings are believed to be priceless.

  44. tmezpoetry · · Reply

    Actually, an inspiring post… writing because you have to, write because you need to, write because it is the evidence of your own soul leaking out.

  45. I’m deeply touched.

  46. The first paragraph and part of this felt like a one on one talk and I could relate. I have been writing but its all in vain just a few readers here or there or even none so I got discouraged and deleted every single writing and gave up. I have been looking for some inspiration and finally got one, hope with time I will get better not for the love of getting paid but for the love of writing and reaching out..your work was inspirational, thank you for this .

  47. Dear sir, you have inspired me to leave a comment after a few days of not using this option (somewhat of a crime for a wordpress user)

    I have mixed feelings about this post. On one hand, it is dreadfully depressing, and I have the urge to lecture you about not pulling yourself together and basically living a half-miserable existence for fifty years (okay, maybe not the whole fifty, but you get the idea).
    On the other hand, this is probably one of the most honest posts I’ve read so far. I respect how you just wrote down everything as it is – and very well too, for a so-called “failed writer”. However, the last sentence is bothering me. I understand that the theme of this post isn’t exactly optimism, but I think you should delete the last sentence for yourself. Keep writing!

    1. More like a 75% miserable existence. But to quote Thoreau again, most men lead lives of quiet desperation. I think that the only thing that will free all of us is collective action, revolution.

  48. Love how all of the failing writers (including myself) resonate with this haha.

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