1. There’s no money in it. Unless you’re really good and/or really lucky, you’re not going to make a living off of your writing. Here’s something those MFA boosters won’t tell you: a tiny percentage of writers are doing very well; the vast majority are not. Wanna be a writer? Don’t quit your day job!
2. You get sucked into Writerland. If you start describing yourself as a writer at dinner parties and family functions, you’re gonna get sucked, sooner or later, into a strange parallel universe called Writerland. Before you know it, you’ll be going to creative writing seminars and publishing your shit in obscure literary journals no one reads. Mark my words: Writerland will distort and eventually destroy your style. One day you’ll wake up and realize that you’re only writing for other writers, when you really ought to be writing for intelligent readers. But then it’ll be too late: your writing will have already become one big, long inside joke that only the cool kids can understand. Remember Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s wise words in The Bed of Procrustes concerning the high costs we, as a society, pay for hyper-specialization: “architects build to impress other architects; models are thin to impress other models; academics write to impress other academics; filmmakers try to impress other filmmakers; painters impress art dealers; but authors who write to impress book editors tend to fail.”
3. You become a ghost. The last two decades have not been kind to writers and journalists. Many of the best writers I know have had to turn to the dark, Soldier-of-Fortune world of ghostwriting to keep body and soul together. For those of you who don’t know, ghostwriters are basically the literary equivalent of body doubles or mercenaries. They’re paid to make rich assholes look good and sound smart. And you wouldn’t believe how many of them are out there working right now. It’s not just politicians and celebrities: junior executives get speechwriters now too! For instance, after being promoted to a junior executive position at a very well known company (which shall remain nameless), my friend’s 29-year-old son was assigned a ghostwriter who shall henceforth “help him with” (that is, write) all of his emails, memos, and speeches. As you might expect, ghostwriting pays about as well as housecleaning. Unlike housecleaning, however, it’s thoroughly soul-crushing. Talk about casting your pearls before the swine!
4. You’ve gotta get it up, day in and day out, even when you’re not in the mood. My wife was once offered a regular weekly column in a major Canadian newspaper. She wisely turned it down. Why? Because she (quite rightly, I think) suspected that she probably wouldn’t have something interesting to say every single week, all year round: on some weeks, she might have five interesting things to say; on others, she might have nothing to say; but, regardless of these natural rhythms, if she signed that contract, she’d have to come up with something every week. That’s a whole lot of performance pressure! It’s also a recipe for mediocrity. My guess is that most columnists suck on a fairly regular basis precisely because they’re forced to write their column when they’re uninspired, when they really don’t have anything to say, when they’re, well, um, not in the mood. Far better, I think, to write as a sideline, when the spirit moves. That way you can write when you feel like you’ve got something to say. And stay silent when you don’t. My own experience of writing is a case in point. I spent most of my 20s and 30s reading a great deal. I wrote practically nothing. At present, I find that I have a few things to say. So I write. But this is just a phase. I’ll run out of things to say eventually. And then I’ll go back to reading. Perhaps forever. And that will be just fine.
—John Faithful Hamer, Twilight of the Idlers (2017)