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. M.C. Easton

    So glad your writing has busted the dam, and you find yourself with plenty to say. I’ve seen loss do that for other writers, including myself, and I’m so happy you’re using it. Keep stealing time to write without killing it. Your voice is worth some petty theft. Keep it coming.
    And I loved this line: “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…I would give up literature for heroin, if I could, but heroin is too expensive.”

  2. mikedanes

    Strange, I too feel this way and yet I am only 24.

    I feel that I fail at it on a daily basis, though every now and then I may receive some praise on how “truly great” or “I love everything you write” but, at the end of the day the outcome; well for myself anyhow is the same: My writing sucks!

    I think writing is like the heroin you speak of that is too expensive, so I have never tried (also not sure if it’s the best practice).

    However, I guess what I’m saying is that maybe we all fail at writing, maybe we all produce our own form of heroin for others in our writing. Yet, it’s too expensive of their time to really purchase or share with others.

    Great read.

  3. hfussell

    I just turned 70 and realized I wasted all those years when all i really wanted to do was write. I also have been a keypunch operator and mostly a medical transcriptionist. Trust me son, 50 is a wonderful age! I retired on disability at age 60 but struggle as you do to write and connect. I earn $100 for an article in Georgia Magazine in 2014 and was exhilarated! My fame lasted about the proverbial 15 minutes. I had some solace in the fact that GEMC Magazine (Georgia Electric Membership Corp.) circulated into most of Georgia. I think most writers waste a lot of time and feel guilty or overwhelmed. I realized that I am not cultivated or sophisticated enough and anything I want to write about except personal experiences takes a lot of research! I hate to read about some romance writer flying to Scotland to research her next book! You have to learn what you write, if that makes any sense, and it is, as you stated, time consuming. I love your writing style. If Hillary can run for President at age 68 (although I despise her politics), there is hope for old people like me and a “young” 50-year-old like you
    to still achieve. God bless us all!

  4. Lisa Kristinardottir

    You are not a failed writer. You have zero regrets because did and are doing what u love. That’s a gift. Use it. Love it. Spread more of it. Don’t ever stop writing and creating art from your mind’s eye and all the Infinite Brain storms…for any reason.

  5. Hussain Baxamusa

    There are times that I get morbid over the lingering fact, that not a single person will read what I have to say. But then again I’m not alone. I share the morbidness with like souls, hoping to turn that morbidness into a glimmer of hope I gravitate to.

  6. daniel lee johnson

    Excellent writing and I like your sardonic humor too. I suppose it was very good because I read all of it and hated to see the story end. Never surrender !! I write totally for my own pleaue and if someone like it I am happy. If someone doesnt like it oh well…. I didnt write it for anyone but me. I started seriously writing poetry at 49 and had to teach myself to write. I still have alot to learn though !!

  7. Tara

    Oh, how this spoke to me. I think about this a lot. I’m 23 and an aspiring writer with no means to succeed but also no ability to fail, because writing is indeed an addiction. Moreover, it’s a part of you. I wonder what I’ll look back upon when I’m 50. I hope that I have the courage to fail. I hope that I have the courage to let go of what’s comfortable and pursue what is terrifying and unknown. Thank you for your thoughts. You’ve given me something to chew on.

  8. tonyleft

    It’s the fear of failure that pushes me towards success. Sometimes, however, success is not forthcoming. I heard a voice once in me saying ‘keep talking, one day the world will listen’. Could be tomorrow or 25 years later, I applaud you for the courage and patience to wait. Thumbs up.

  9. Pingback: On Being a Failed Writer | Ankahee…

  10. phoenixxfromashes

    Man…we have so much in common it’s morbidly amusing….. I am also a “failed writer” but I have decided to keep on writing (for myself!) …..since there is nothing else left to do in this vacuum some call “life”

  11. phoenixxfromashes

    Write from your heart, when you’re half asleep, slightly buzzed/ stoned, with tears sloshing onto the blotchy paper……in my experience that is the best way to dig & excavate hidden/buried truths & wisdom!

  12. ofopinions

    Thank you for writing this piece. There is too much of the romance of writing on the internet. Very few people talk about how it realistically affects your life, how hard it is to keep at something stubbornly, even if everything else is falling apart. I don’t believe it’s only a case of writer’s block and somehow setting aside time to write everyday is going to solve everything. There are so many things that get in the way. Reading your life here, I don’t think it is your admission of not being a writer (something that sounds more like a European lit idea than an American one which, given by your inspiration, isn’t surprising!) but your not having the lifestyle, the opportunities and the luck to receive validation as a writer. Writing requires much more than talent. Talent may even be optional, as long as there is plenty of drive, which explains many of the successful hacks out there. But, success in this is so elusive, many deliberate hacks also don’t make it.
    The only consolation you can have is to keep doing it, if you still feel the urge to. Despite facing so many disappointments over the years, you’ve not been able to give up on writing. But, maybe, writing has not been able to give up on you. Can you imagine how much worse life would have been without the dream, the frustration, of writing and love? All the writing that you will be doing in future will be so much more interesting given your experiences, rather than some successful writer your age. Maybe it will not be profitable, but it will be far more relatable, truthful and relevant, because there are many, many failures out there more than successes. And they look for kindred souls in reading, which is why they ended up reading and loving this essay!

  13. katmphotography

    i see no failure here. you write very well, citing others as appropriate. in this article, you have written a piece that resonates with so many (myself included to a certain extent) – surely, if you can write and move people then that in itself is not failure? we are all too quick to succumb to societal pressure and put too much emphasis on ‘glory’ and ‘success’ – what are they, but words? labels? challenges?
    i write for myself. and have had a few items published, but never enough to make a ‘career’ out of it. do i care? should i care? do what you love and love what you do. this doesn’t define us. you are not a failure. keep writing. do it for yourself. write about what you know, who you know. explore and enjoy.
    it’s like the music industry – there are very few ‘big deals’ to be had these days as the internet and access to ‘free’ music has crippled the industry. today, with music production systems being so accessible everyone is a musician, or a producer or a superstar DJ – because they can do it at home. hey, even Moby recorded and produced ‘Play’ in his NY loft apartment. Radiohead gave their last album away for free. When giants like that are affected by the internet, there seems little hope for those aspiring musicians who long to ‘live the dream…’ and get signed… yada yada yada – now with sites like soundcloud, mixcloud, reverbnation – everyone is a musician. making music and the sharing of music has never been so accessible. thanks and no thanks to the internet, the music industry has been radically changed.
    and it’s the same with photography – thanks to Instagram, everyone’s a damned photographer.
    and thanks to the countless blog sites, everyone is a journalist, a writer.
    the internet has both damned and freed these arts – and many others. now the film industry is feeling it, with YouTube and Vimeo – and streaming sites, download sites.
    don’t beat yourself and call yourself a failure. there are other factors at play that don’t make it easy as a writer. don’t feel queasy about self-publishing, i believe Amazon and Kindle have good (?) deals for self-publishing authors.
    but it does break my heart, every day, when i log in here and read numerous articles such as this (although not all are as eloquent).
    keep writing. but write for YOU. fall in love with writing again. it seems like you’ve lost your spirit somewhere along the way… and i sympathise and empathise.
    keep writing. it’s all we can do! if it moves someone, job done! that’s not failure. THAT is a success.

  14. bthinji

    ….you are one of few people in the world who can pick a pen and piece of paper ,and skillfully write words which will remain immortal ,keep the spirit of writing on .

  15. elizabethcollie

    As a person who has been writing as a hobby for years, and is now trying to take the plunge and possibly get published- this post is both disheartening yet inspiring. I’m glad i took the time to read it.

  16. Angela

    I’ve always written but run away from being read, but felt pressure from others to pursue “being a writer” for money. I’ve always been scared that if I changed my measure of success, which is currently just writing, to include having readers, then I would start to feel pressured and stop enjoying what feels like a random gift. I think a lot about whether writers need readers…it’s a slightly absurd question on one hand, but on another level, writing is expression, emotion, healing, learning and need not always be destined for the masses to have profound impact. Just a thought. 🙂

  17. raybell1820

    I think this is far too negative, and I think even by thinking this you are doing yourself down somewhat.

    Eddie Gibbons, a delightful man I met a couple of months ago, only started writing poetry at age fifty. Originally from Merseyside, his poetry is gaining a following north of the Border.


    i can also mention the late David Fiddimore, who i knew a bit better. He had several novels published, but only started writing in a big way since retirement.


  18. pastorrichard13

    As a publish on demand Author, I find like you that failure is easy, writing a good piece is hard. In process for my first novel, I’ll see how I do.. Good read here, keep the pen flowing…Did I say pen?…lol

      1. chachashire

        Waiting for it , I may propose one from Alexandre Vialatte, a french writer from Auvergne, the first translator of KAFKA in France ? ( Sorry. I translate it all by myself, let’s talk about failed translation another time 😉 ). Maybe it only makes sense in the french literacy context.

        “One tried everything to find a new shape : novel without story, novel without character,

        “No way, one only reached and created novel whitout reader. Which was known for long !”

        “On a tout essayé pour trouver du nouveau : le roman sans histoire, le roman sans personnage,
        “Peine perdue, on n’est parvenu à créer que le roman sans lecteur. C’est un genre connu depuis longtemps !”

  19. Stefanie

    Very well written! I do not believe that you are a failure. Your work has touched me and opened my mind to the idea that nothing will ever snuff out my urge to write. I have, for many years, been suppressing the urge to write. I just never seemed to have time, although I have been advised by many professors that I should write a novel. But, what do I know about writing? I know that I enjoy it and it makes me happy to do it. That being said, even if I never get any of my work published, I will still keep writing. It is like therapy for me, as I am sure it is for you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us and keep on writing!

  20. W E Patterson

    Keep writing. I am 61, so 50 doesn’t seem old at all to me. It’s a great age and you have talent – at least you kept me reading here until the very last line (and my attention span is rather short lately 🙂

    And congrats on the FP!!

  21. rosiebooks2009

    I think you just summed up a lot of people’s lives, mine included, sadly. But this failure thing isn’t your fault. Writing is not something that you do, it’s something that is you. If you’re writing, you’re doing what you were born to do. Whether or not anyone else is reading is immaterial. But people are reading, or where did those 569 likes come from?

  22. carlgladish

    “I am not a writer at all. … I’m a small-time embezzler and petty thief stealing ticks of the clock back from capitalism.” I love this image, sad as it is. If I remember correctly, Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man said something like, “If Science ever determines a formula for human nature, there will be many people – like me – who would commit suicide just to assert their freedom.” It seems to me this is what you are doing, metaphorically speaking. You are digging in your heels against “capitalism”, which has essentially turned human life into a formula (work + anxiety + shame = minimal earnings); your acceptance or recognition of your “failure” at “just about everything” is a kind of suicide.

  23. brightonsauce

    What about drawing? There’s books – pens come with the books, they’re not expensive, you colour in the pictures and you stick them on the wall of the ward if they let you have blu-tack or sellotape?

    Come on, find a tiny magazine to submit your stuff. And really, you would not want to be a great author, trust me, it is agony. Also, best to have a job, otherwise one only writes fantasy, trust me, I only wrote fantasy for two years, or about sitting in front of the computer, erotica occasionally.

    Good effort, brother. Front page of WordPress, so…so…onwards x. See you in the book shop – in our anoraks, browsing, our beards and breath. 🙂

  24. ShannoneRhea

    A cold heart and a poison pen are two things I give back to you. For this is not who I am.
    I am free and my heart is filled only with love and it is warm and beating. I am real
    Your poison pen pens words regrettable and with craft and true talent you destroy.
    Let me set fire to this novel.
    Let me replace it with a love story, one that is true, one that lets me be me.
    I am free
    Take back your poison pen and cold heart

  25. gretal feeson

    This was a great read, failed writer is an interesting concept, I think it depends on what your writing for. I’m 28 and new to writing poetry but I really enjoy it as it really helps with filling spare time when you have no money and for just giving purpose or direction to ones life (if that makes sense lol) 🙂


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