Recently at the end of a creative nonfiction class I taught, a student came to me with a helpless shrug of her shoulders. “I want to write. I want to be a writer. That’s what I want to do with my life.” I felt a gush of pride that I had managed a convert, but pity came next, then fear: What had I done? I immediately knew I needed to fill in what I left out from the class script, the off-stage notes that turn out to be the most important. To her and to any other aspiring writers, I offer the cheerful remainder here (to be read in a sonorous voice, because the warnings are real):
Woe #1: You will see too much.
You will no longer be able to ignore the woman in El Salvador sitting among the garbage, the man carrying a sink onto a bus, the arguing couple behind you in the restaurant. A writer is charged with keeping attention, with bringing words to the invisible, the unspoken, the troubling, the ridiculous. But even as you take note, do take note: the best words you find will not be enough.
Woe #2: You’ll lose a lot of sleep.
You will welcome nightly visitations of the muse, inviting her with an open notebook beside your bed. You will be so hungry for words you will gladly trade your necessary rest for a single cutting sentence, a vivid metaphor, a line of pretty poetry. You will be tired often because of it and you won’t always be happy.
Woe #3: You will gradually be divested of your most cherished stereotypes and grudges.
Your entrance into others’ lives and stories whether actual or fictional will bring a disconcerting complexity and humanness to the unlikeliest and unloveliest people. If you’re not careful, you may even be tempted to forgive.
Woe #4: You’ll give away your privacy.
All the world’s a page. To keep both of yours turning (world and page) you’ll need to appear on every platform you can beg, borrow and thieve, telling and giving all at any hour of night or day, without modesty or reserve. You will give most of yourself away. A special woe to those tempted to write memoir.
Woe #5: You will read for pleasure less and you will like fewer books.
Once you take language and books seriously you will be unable to turn off your writer and editor’s eye. Writing that once offered distraction and escape will seldom survive the mental red pen, shrinking your list of favorites. You will give up on bestsellers. You will feel culturally stranded.
Woe #6: You will spend far more money than you make.
For every writing project you undertake, you will buy a shelf or two of books and you’ll subscribe to literary journals and magazines as if they kept you warm and fed. Which they will, but the metaphor breaks down when the temperature drops below freezing and you’re eating oatmeal for dinner and the bills are past due.
Woe #7: You will not be content to live in the present only.
In your pursuit of what is real and true, you will excavate the past as eagerly as the present, breaking down closet doors, piecing skeletons together, retrieving abandoned diaries. You will find nuance and revolution that disturbs the status quo. Others will be annoyed and will try to keep you quiet. You may not be invited for Christmas dinner.
Woe #8: You will no longer be satisfied in writing for yourself.
Once you find an audience, however small, you’ll write by an open window instead of a mirror. You’ll carry your readers with you. You’ll care too much about the truth for their sake. You’ll want to heal and help. You’ll see how small you are. You’ll keep writing anyway.
When I began a tentative writing life thirty years ago, I was never formally wooed nor “woe-d.” If I had, would I have continued? I know the answer. It comes as the final “woe” and I write it now to my student, who is still watching me with undimmed eyes:
Woe#9: Woe to those who hear, who touch and who see, yet who drop the pen and turn away from the open half-written pages of a world still waiting to be finished. Many stories will be lost. Yours will not end as it should. This woe is far worse than the others.