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. Liked the Bukowski reference, he’s my latest inspiration for poetry writing style.
    This read was so interesting, I grabbed at every word and put my shoes on it. Ah, the life of a failed writer is as pathetic as it is poetic. Thanks for writing

  2. I am 23 and is aspiring to be a write ‘big’ too. I used to write for an unknown local daily after college hoping that it’s going to be my ticket to big time . Yet I got frustrated and joined the corporate world instead. Writing now is my stress-reliever and banking is my money-giver. Your article is really a great piece. Thank you!

  3. This is beautiful. This just hit home. I’m 25 and I felt like my dad / mentor told me these words. I felt like this a message from my 50-year old self. Thank you for sharing this with us. It’s really beautiful. Please keep on doing you.

  4. I write for enjoyment. I enjoy venting and expressing emotions thru poetry … so I was found on wordpress and published my first poetry book. Personally, success or not doesn’t mean anything to me. I keep writing because I enjoy it. If I wanted to make money then I would write about vampires, zombies or romance erotica …. poetry is not a popular read. I keep writing so never give up and do what makes you happy. It is not always about the money. Best to you!


    Ps: Watch out for abusive trolls.

  5. Here I am in the final year of engineering. Not interested in post graduation but forced by my dad. I am at that point, 20, where you decide your career. Even though I will be having enough qualification to get a decent job or start a business I am not interested. I don’t think I will be happy with myself just living for the sake of earning money.

  6. You write about failing but not much about what, to you, would mean success. Success should be a measure of satisfaction, not so narrowly defined as income, in my strong opinion. We all need to make a living, sure. But making a living in any of the arts has to be one of the — if not THE — hardest way to do it. And writers are especially challenged with the Internet. If you broadened your view of success, you should be able to feel pride in your work and count yourself successful, if only for being Freshly Pressed and for the oh-so many of us who read this post all the way through and the number of readers willing to say they liked it. Including me.

  7. I’m glad I read this. I’m in my thirties and I’m just finally reaching out to be a writer. Up to this point I’ve been terrified of rejection, so I never tried. Now, I expect rejection, but at least I feel like I’m doing something worthy with my life. I figure that I will turn in my work to different publishers for the rest of my life and never given a chance. It’s a self-defeating attitude, but as you said there is so much self-publishing. Much of your words I related to and feel like I will relate to more as the years go by.

  8. Well written. For a “failed writer” you surely can write. I enjoyed reading it but I could also feel the sadness. I carry the fear of becoming a failed writer but I can’t give up something I haven’t completely started.

  9. Your story is actually really motivating. For somebody who just started out writing and publishing articles, sometimes it’s hard to continue writing to an invisible audience and forgetting the whole reason of why I actually started writing – for the pure fun and enjoyment from it.

    Thanks for being so inspiring. 🙂

  10. Hmmm. Sounds like you want to win the lottery to finance the rest of your life. Join the club – me, too ! Meanwhile, your writing is solid, and the only thing you’re failing at is being paid to write.

    If you look at how many people followed their passions, you’ll see that you’re not alone in that failure.

    Good luck with what you’re doing. Clearly, something is working in that you’re still interested and able to do it.

    1. Well, even I’m not dumb enough to think you can win the lottery. The odds were much better in the old Harlem numbers racket, before the state took it over. But even then, as the class Barry Shears film Across 110th Street demonstrated, the smart play wasn’t to play the lottery. It was to rob the lottery.


      But maybe I am dumb enough. The typical person on the street thinks of the publishing world kind of the way he thinks about the lottery. Write one good book, and someone will notice it. I guess in reality the publishing world, like the lottery, only benefits a tiny 1% of the population, people who already have the money and connections.

      Still though, I wish as many people read books as passionately as they played the unwinnable state numbers racket. Every time I walk into a convenience there’s a line to buy lottery tickets a mile long.

      1. Why so pessimistic? A lot say life begins at 50 – many of these are writers. I am 32, with three young children I had to put my career on the shelf for now but I know I will do well at something oneday – its a case of mind over matter. Pick something you want to do and persist at it. Remember real people win the lottery every day all over the world.

  11. You say you will spend the next 25 years failing to be a writer….well…I for one hope you do…You are excellent, Thanks for sharing…You have been Heard!

  12. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 12, and I believed that line about getting a day job to support myself until I could live off my writing. So I did that. I did the schooling. I got the job. And now I’m in that hamster wheel you described above; fighting for time to read and write as much as I need to in order to eventually etch out a living as a writer. The safety net job may bring a steady paycheck, but it drains my soul. I’ll be 30 this year, and I’ve decided I don’t want a fall back anymore. I don’t want a safety net. If I keep living my life this way, I will never find the time to realize my dream. It’s all or nothing. I’ll soon be joining you in the ranks of failing writers. Wish me luck!

    1. I think I did too. I just didn’t have the courage to admit I had the right to speak until I was 25. Until my mid-20s, in fact, I had trouble, even calling people by their first names, I was so repressed.

  13. Thanks for this great piece which really resonates with me. I’m 33, and just starting a new chapter of failing to be a writer. I love that we have the internet now to share our stories… almost as though we were made for these times.

  14. So much love for this. Thank you for your insight and wonderful stringing together of words. Even if you feel like a failed writer, just know that your words have reached at least one person.

  15. This pulled me very strongly to your hard work. I’ll continue to write no matter whatever it takes! Thank you for being my inspiration. Thank you Sir!

  16. I understand that writing is an addiction. Except for printed sporadic letters to the editor, I’ve never had anything published. Okay I will admit, I’ve never even tried. But everyday, I still write. I too have tried to stop what some call word vomit, but I can’t sleep. The words rumble in my head like thunder. I have tried creative writing classes and now I’m going to a meetup group that gives writing prompts. Also I’m doing WordPress writing 101 and blogging 101. Our assignment today was to comment on a blog we have not read before. I was happy to find one that connected with me.

  17. An absolute eye opener, writing is just not like some software coding robotically, but it is something a writer puts his soul into, great thoughts sir.

  18. Your writing is powerfully brave! I too have written for over half my life now …and feel the impact of truth that your words bring. Thank you for relating to how many of writer’s feel about being passionate to write every damn day. To keep showing up. To listen. High five to triumph!

  19. There are so many talented writers out there. No one has ever talked about the other side of writing which is dealing with rejection. Well done for telling the truth and you’re a good writer.

  20. This tickled the “I use to like to play with words” in me and all your failure is the greatest tone of success in one post, your writing. Great read!

  21. Well you clearly haven’t failed this time because I’m not a reader really something has to keep my attention which is shorter than a gnat! And you managed to keep my attention I read the whole post only scanning a couple times! So in my eyes you have achieved thanks for that x

  22. 1,277 likes? That’s more than most first novelists can even dream of! Looks like you haven’t failed at all, my friend. A really compelling post – many thanks.

  23. I’ve been wanting to write since high school but only started in my early thirties. 50 short stories later I’m stuck in limbo. Is my stuff any good? Have I wasted my time? Going back and reading my entries I sit back and hate almost all of them! Lol! Not sure what to do next, but reading your entry just now, has inspired me to keep going! Thank you!

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