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. Being a writer didn’t come to my mind. Yes, I wrote articles and school papers since high school. During my college, I started to work as a part time writer for different people. I also experience rejection, but didn’t give up. What can I say, I’m earning now from my talent. But I still open myself for improvements and learning. I wrote two eBooks for my clients. Paranormal Romance and self publishing, I’m hoping someday that I can write my own book and become a well known writer. Thank you for sharing.

  2. You’re 50 and a “failure” as a writer. I’m two years short of 70 and every bit the “failure” you purport to be, and still I write (and fail, often spectacularly). In nearly 50 years of writing, I have managed only to post a few things on my so-called “blog”, Walking The Cat, and those to less-than-widespread readership. It is our curse to be subject to “cacoethia scribendi” the itch to scribble, and to realize the only way to scratch that itch is with a pen.

  3. If people like you fail,who Are we? The beginners in some corner of this world! And if u are a failure in writing, we’d wAnt to become another you. N yes,you article is being read by 10 people standing next to me, you earn no money but salutes: )

    1. I think every person has the urge to think independently, to create something beautiful. But most of us live in a society that encourages us to work at some alienating job, and consume.

      The main reason this particular article got attention was because an editor at WordPress decided to “Freshly Press” it. Before that, it got maybe 20 or 30 readers.

      I’m sure you, and most people who have commented here, have written something as good, or better. I also think that the more people who write, and get read, the better off I am, and everybody else is.

      I’m not a huge punk fan, but I like the ideal where everybody can consider him or herself a musician. It’s usually when a lot of people are creating, that the most interesting works of art get made.

  4. I wanted to click on the like button but I have an issue with Word Press and its overthinking of the ‘registering’ bit. However, I digress. I read the article with a great deal of interest, picturing in my head what people probably assumed and said about you down the years. I am sure you felt you were a failure, but looked at from another point of view one could say, to fail is not to have tried. You followed your own yellow brick road. You did it your way – as FS sang. And if one thinks about how many people write, publish, self-publish these days it is hardly surprising that most of us do not become main stream writers earning a living [never mind the block buster snapped up by the publishers and film industry alike]. Most writers are also avid readers, and I do not have enough hands to count the number of writers who have made a success and sold a decent number ++ of books, and those who are famous writers, whose books often do not live up to the praise heaped upon them on the back cover of their books. The famous ones are worse I think, because their bad efforts are published because of them being well known. You are human, you are not made to fit in a sausage skin. You are not meant to be bashed and bashed and bashed into the wrong size hole in the Tupperware toy. As writers we tend to be thought of, or at least we think that is how people perceive us, as failures because we have not been snapped up by a publisher or had a story accepted for print, but that should not be the case. Chance and luck also come into play in the great publishing city in the sky. Publishers and publishers assistants have too many manuscripts to look at and too little time.

    You are not a failure. You are a steadfast perseverer.

  5. In a world where anybody and their mama can write a book, regardless of writing ability, I think you’re being too hard on yourself. I rarely read post this long, but I felt compelled to see this one to the end. I kept thinking you were about to tell us you made it! However, I think this piece is special, definately heartfelt. Since you can publish books on Amazon for free, I think you should publish this post just as it is, title and all. I have no doubt millions can relate. …LOL

  6. Thank you for posting and for your honesty. I’m 37 and feel like you’ve just described my life.. the only difference being, I still don’t know what I want to do with my life!

  7. Brilliant! I rarely if ever visit the Freshly Pressed tab on the reader but I stole some time today (a glorious day of shore leave) and found myself here! May you find success as a time thief and fully execute that well laid out plan!

  8. The story was funny… you can write:) “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.”

  9. From a failing writer to another ….you are gold! Untapped maybe but to me u shined so bright through my thick skull …I have pledged huge fan-ship because I am inspired to stay hooked on my addictions rather than fight a battle I can’t win

  10. This is the most negative post I have read in a while. I still enjoyed it and respect your writing, but I feel like you have never believed in yourself or your writing. If you don’t believe in yourself, who will? Its never too late to do what you love. You are clearly a good writer and inspiration is hitting you now. Take advantage and for once believe in yourself. I say this respectfully and correct me if Im wrong because I obviously don’t know you, that’s just what I got from your story.

  11. Reblogged this on lostdudeistastrology and commented:
    Looks like I am busted. (Along with a few million of the rest of us on WordPress who not so secretly dream of being the next Stephen King or Patterson) Smile. Thanks for a good piece on (part of) the dark side of so many of us.

  12. Sir, I must say that I’ve never connected to any sort of writing I’ve read as much to this one. In some way, I would say that I understand what it felt being a failed writer because I always believed that I was. And I still am. Reading this, gave me a refreshed feeling, like I am being understood, for once in my life. Thank you so much sir. Reading this post may be a coincidence, but reading your future posts will be a choice I am more than willing to make 🙂

  13. Failure has been a constant companion in my life. My time in the Marines, my efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle… I even had the same idea as you about leaving my music behind for “stability” in the Computer Science and IT industry (I failed).

    What I’ve found is that failure has made me strong in ways I couldn’t even conceive as a younger man. I’ve learned to pick myself up and keep going. I’ve learned to ask for help when I need it, and to see the real, hidden value in connecting with people on a level both above and beneath the stale pleasantries we exchange in hopes of gaining social favor. I’ve learned that there are people in every society who can not fit themselves into the rigid socialization that promises success, no matter how hard they try.

    And lastly, I’ve learned to be very skeptical of young people who claim to really understand Foucault or Derrida. It has taken me exactly however long I’ve already been on this planet to feel as though I’m finally grasping at the corners of great ideas from great idea makers such as those.

    I hope you borrow, steal, pinch, and burgle every spare second you can to support your *writing*, especially if you are capable of such poignant and intimate narrative. Subscribed.

    1. Thanks for the excellent comment. I was struck by this.

      I’ve learned that there are people in every society who can not fit themselves into the rigid socialization that promises success, no matter how hard they try.

      I wonder if this isn’t the majority in a lot of societies.

      1. I don’t know if you’re into Marshall McLuhan, but he said something in an interview once that has really stuck with me. It was about how our planet is now both physically and metaphorically enveloped in information and how this fact, in his view, has made nature itself “programmable.”

        This sparked a chain of thought in me about the difference in our perception of nature in pre-global village society. Think of the modern approaches to weather, natural resources, agriculture, disease outbreaks, and Malthusian sustainability, to name a few examples. These are all things for which we now, as human beings, feel at least partly responsible for.

        When nature itself becomes programmable, a plaything for our intellects, it’s like we get the rug yanked from underneath society. Postmodernism is still a thing because we haven’t discovered anything since modernism that can’t be picked apart, dissected, and shown as ultimately flawed.

        I have a lot of ideas about where this kind of thinking has lead us as a society, as well as the reactions to and against where it’s lead us. But one really clear effect, in my estimation, is the widespread anomie that I seem to notice in our media and daily routines. I think even those who manage to fit themselves into the rigors of “successful” socialization feel it.

        In summary, I think most everyone is on some level noticing that rigidly following the rules of society doesn’t pay off too well in the end. The ones who can’t seem to find a place to fit in, maybe they’re just more conscious of it than most.

  14. Your title drew me in. I am 50 and a failed writer. I read every word and empathized. My experience is a little different. I have had good jobs and have a good job now. Ironically, something about me envies your position in life. Perhaps it is the adventure and edginess of your life. I have been unwilling to jump out there and be committed to it even at the cost of vulnerability. I respect you as a writer.

  15. Congratulations. You can spin a good yarn, sir! Your narrative is honest and courageous. One of my favorite things to remember is that Herman Melville, author of what many critics consider the greatest novel of the American Renaissance, Moby Dick, was in his lifetime a failed writer. He gained some momentum with his first two novels and then lost most of his readership with his “radical” new novels, including Moby Dick. He died thinking he was a failed writer. And look at the reverence Moby Dick receives today (it is, by the way, a visceral and beautiful read). Anyway, I remember that I may die a “failure,” but that it doesn’t really matter. Your work may outlive you. And even if it doesn’t, you’ve put your all into your life.

    1. Melville was far ahead of his time. I remember reading Joseph Conrad’s dismissive comments on Moby Dick in the early 20th Century and wonder why one genius couldn’t understand another. Perhaps it was competition about who was the greatest sea novelist.

  16. You’re a good writer. For me, I just have the desire to write. If my writings sell, then that will just be the icing on the cake. When I get around to writing my family’s story in entirety I’m not even sure I will charge a dime.

  17. Great read mate. Just remember, a writer feels driven by the impulsive need to capture experience in words. They form sentences in their brains at the most inconvenient times, and they observe the events of their lives from watchful little room in their brains. The act of putting pen to paper – thats just an extension of it.

    You sir, are a writer, regardless of whether you ever write again.

  18. Oh that was just excellent! I’ve only just published, self-published that is my first poetry book aged 50 … I reckon many writers, poets us creative expressionists will be nodding throughout your most excellent blog post! 🙂

  19. Misery loves company 🙂 I’ve just started my third blog….and it’s still blank. You may be a failed writer, but you’re also a damn good one too.

  20. A very good post. As a fellow writer, I could relate with what you’ve written. And I completely understand those feelings manifesting inside you. I just want to say you’re an absolutely fantastic writer, judging by this blog post. And I’m not blowing smoke. I mean it.

  21. Beautifully honest, brutally so. I like your style, your passion, your idealism couched in grown-up-ese. These words resonated with me completely:
    “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?”

  22. Looking at the number of comments, you are far from a failure. If I had written this the comment count would be zero. THAT is failure. You, sir get read. Those in my neck of the woods get cricket sounds. Real failure is knowing you are good and never getting a chance to prove it.

  23. I start this comment out just like you did at the beggining of the post. You won’t probably even read it (and why should you, yeah?) as I see how many people replied on your post. The second thing and much bigger reason is, that I surely look by my grammar and used words like an idiot. That’s because im from the Czech republic and not really good at expressing myself in english language as a smart and intelligent woman. or even writer! but I swear that if i could use my mother language it will be on a different level. i’m 22 now and i’ve found myself during reading your post in almost every single sentence.

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