by Sweta Srivastava Vikram
At the Oscars this year, Robert De Niro’s intro of the best screenplay nominees caught the attention of many: “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing”, he said, before continuing, “Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.” I acknowledged his comment – it was both funny and spot-on, but part of me, equally loved and hated the reality of his words.
When I think back to what De Niro said, a part of me feels exposed and betrayed. How could De Niro share the darkest secret of the “writing community” with the world? As writers we are often dismissed as “nut jobs” but how many people make the effort to understand what goes inside the mind or life of a writer? What does it take for person to dedicate a life to writing?
Things bother me about how artists are perceived and treated. I realise that I’ve made a professional choice and I don’t want or need sympathy. Maybe, a little understanding? Yes. Why are artists grossly underpaid? And why are we constantly asked, “What’s your REAL job?” As both poet and writer, I am often given unsolicited advice about my personal choices and career path. I know I’m not alone. Raise your hands if you have received writing tips and story ideas from random people. I have been given guidance on how to perform at my public readings, what I should base my characters on, plot ideas. I have no qualms about taking advice from writing professionals but none of these people had the authority or experience to share their “wisdom.” The words that are really beginning to grate: “Can I get a free copy of your book? You must have made so much money from royalties! So lucky!”
Unfortunately for me, many people I meet believe that they have writers figured out: people who, sit with their laptops and write, collect royalties, drink tea and coffee, and party like alcoholic, nymphomaniac Bohemians. Seriously, how many of us can afford that lifestyle—both emotionally and financially? Many of us work 16-17 hours a day while knowing there might be negative results at the end of it all. We have a schedule, discipline, and projects in place. We have homes and families to manage. Cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, and relationship management—just like other Homo sapiens.
I want to make a distinction here because it’s an important one to make. First and foremost, there is a difference between people who consider writing a hobby and those who write to make a living. Perhaps, those writing for a hobby can afford to sit idly and bear a sense of entitlement. But for me writing is a way to make sense of the world. If I wasn’t able to write, I wouldn’t know how to breathe. For working writers like me, writing is our profession, passion, and source of income. Writing is the elixir of life for us. Sure, caffeine and alcohol make the journey more palatable but it’s persistence and perseverance that can be the difference between being published and not published at all. Publishing success isn’t a matter of luck; it’s about locking yourself up in a room day after day, showing up, and talking to imaginary people and making them believable. On some days, the alternate reality we create, filled with our characters, seems more desirable.
Good writing requires self-awareness, introspection, and reflection on the part of the writer. Reflections aren’t always pretty. They make us vulnerable and susceptible to negativity around us. You can work on a book for years and no agent signs you up. There is also the possibility that even if you find representation, no publishing house will take an interest in your work and the book remains unsold. Let’s say all goes well and a publishing house purchases your first book and hands out a handsome advance. After taxes, agent commission, and money spent on book tour and wardrobe, you are left with barely a bragging amount. What if the first book doesn’t do well? The chances of anyone purchasing your second novel are often minimal.
So, yes, Mr. De Niro, the mind of a writer can be a terrifying thing. The reality of a writer’s life: instability and fluid identity. What people see in bookshops and on social media is the post-production phase. The real story is what goes in a writer’s life in the making of a book—the vulnerabilities and emotional wrath that writing exposes us to. Loneliness. Long hours. Heartaches. Lack of guarantees. So, why do we bother to put our mind through this rigmarole? As William Carlos Williams said so eloquently, “I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.”?
Sweta Srivastava Vikram (www.swetavikram.com), featured by Asian Fusion as “One of the most influential Asians of our time,” is an award-winning writer, Amazon best-selling author of 9 books, novelist, poet, essayist, columnist who currently lives in New York City with her husband. A graduate of Columbia University, when Sweta is not doing yoga, dancing, cooking, travelling, writing books and posts for other magazines, or teaching creative writing, she is working as a digital marketing consultant. Connect with her on Twitter [@swetavikram] and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Words.By.Sweta)