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Writers, Count Your Blessings February 28, 2021

I recently watched a video sensationally titled, "Singers born BROKE vs Singers born RICH" by one of the popular stars of YouTube, Joel Gustaf Berghult. It seems the world of YouTube today is like the small television studios of yore, with whole production teams who dedicate themselves to pushing out new eyeball-catching content daily. In this video, Joel's editor plays songs by singers born to wealthy families and singers born to poor families, and Joel marks which songs were "better."

As the video progresses, Joel seems increasingly chagrined that so many famous singers today were born into wealth. In fact, there are so few pop singers born into poverty, the editor had to stretch back in time and match up Ed Sheeran against Johnny Cash and Lana Del Rey against Dolly Parton. Joel ruminates that so many of today's idols are probably in the "born rich" category because their parents' wealth allowed them to focus solely on music.

As explored in depressing nonfiction books like Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, social and economic mobility in the U.S. is largely illusory. In the late 20th century, some people (the white and male ones) could pull themselves out of poverty with shrewd choices and hard work. These days, a person's net worth at thirty was pretty much set at birth.

Writers are similar to singers. We're overwhelmingly privileged, from families middle-class or higher, and we owe a lot of our "talent" and success to our lucky births.

And here is where, I'm sure, some readers will reflexively kick back against the word "privileged." They'll think, "You don't know anything about my life! I skipped meals in college to afford my books. I endured apartments full of cockroaches and inconsiderate roommates for years while publishers sent me rejection after rejection, but I didn't give up. So don't you dare tell me I'm 'privileged,' because I work hard."

And I'm sure those people do work hard, because everyone does. Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey work hard for their musical success, too. Every single person has to work hard to succeed in a career, regardless of background. When we say people are privileged, we don't mean those people didn't have to make any sacrifices and merely used their daddy's connections to sell terrible art for unearned fame. We mean that for those people, their path to success was unimpeded by systemic obstacles.

Writers frequently say in their bios that they wrote their first little book at the age of six. That they have fond memories of staying up to read chapter books under the covers with a flashlight. That they had an amazing English teacher who told them their essay was "the best paper she'd ever read" and encouraged them to pursue a career as a journalist/novelist/poet.

If you wrote your first book at six, it's a fair bet your parents spent a lot of time reading with you as a toddler, and then they sent you to a reputable preschool that taught you how to write. They bought or borrowed those chapter books for you to read by flashlight. They advocated for you to be put in classes with the best teachers. If you were the top writer in your class at fourteen, yes, it's in part because you were quicker to learn and more studious than your peers, but it's also likely because you were given a strong head start.

Imagine both of your parents worked two or three jobs each to pay the bills, and they didn't have the leisure to pick up books from the library or the energy to read to you. While your comfortable classmates devoured Nancy Drew mysteries until midnight, you had to make dinner for your kid siblings and figure out your homework without any help, then get up early to walk to the bus. You couldn't concentrate in school because you were always hungry and tired. That same great English teacher you heard telling another student they'd be a novelist someday shook her head at you and said, "You'll never amount to anything if you don't stop goofing around."

And this is the sanitized version of poverty. Add in an unstable parent with drug and mental health issues, a racist school system that labeled you a "problem child" because you lashed out once in Kindergarten, or undiagnosed learning disabilities educators chalked up to a low IQ and laziness, and the barriers to your academic and future success are so high they're nearly insurmountable.

When exceptional people do manage to overcome unfair obstacles, they're held up as examples that there's nothing wrong with the system. "See," comments on that YouTube video say, "this proves when it comes to music, money doesn't matter. The poor singers were just as good and went just as far as the rich ones."

So dedicated are we to the myth that commercial success in the arts is earned solely through talent and hard work that we go out of our way to stack the barriers higher. We say if a writer is serious about breaking into the industry, they'll pay $1,000 for registration, travel, and lodging to attend a conference and speak with an editor for five minutes. I've seen literary agents assert in Writer's Digest profiles that they strongly prefer to work with authors who have MFAs, because that shows they have a dedication to the craft. "Dedication," of course, means a person is willing to go $30K-50K in debt for a degree, and then deprive their family of $500 a month for the next ten years to pay it off.

The vast majority of writers probably have privileged lives, because we wouldn't have been able to become writers otherwise. Yet despite our enviable advantages, and the fact we're fortunate enough to have the tools and time to pursue our dreams, somehow we became the whiniest, most self-pitying group of professionals I've seen on the internet.

Writers' blogs post long-winded essays about how the life of a creative professional is so much more important and meaningful than the lives of those smug corporate drones who sell their souls for health insurance and 401(k)s. (Certainly you chose the creative life because you're courageous and wise, not because you have a spouse who endures dronehood for you.)

Or how non-writers could never understand what it's like to be so unique and quirky, you'll meet a friend for coffee but don't hear a word they say because you can't stop thinking about your book. (Certainly that means you're gifted, not rude and self-absorbed.)

Or how writing novels is a "Sisyphean effort" because we work so hard for so long, and then we have to start again from nothing and suffer the torturous process of writing yet another story, over and over and over. (Certainly that's a curse unique to writing. No other professional has to keep working day after day, finishing one project only to tragically start the next one.)

The authors of these essays are usually men, but not because female writers don't think the same way. Women just aren't rewarded for complaining about how important we are in long-winded essays. Instead, women complain about our importance through self-deprecating jokes, saccharine pep talks, and brave emotional confessions. A pastiche of tweets:

"If you're wondering how my writing is going today, the laundry is done and the kitchen is spotless!"

"I don't know who needs to hear this, but you can write that book. Even if you feel like it's trash and it will never be done and no one will care, please keep writing! Somewhere out there are people who desperately need your story! Your book could literally save a life!"

"I try to be upbeat and positive on this site, but sometimes I just wanna be honest and say writing is so hard, every day you feel like crying and giving up cuz it's not working, and no it doesn't ever get any easier."

Yes, writing a book is a difficult and draining task. Yes, the publishing industry is unfair. Yes, literature plays an undervalued function in society.

But if you think writing and publishing is so hard you wanna cry and give up every day, watch a few episodes of "How It's Made" on the Science channel. It's a show that sounds like it would be about the fascinating inventions used to make random things like badminton shuttlecocks, but it's really a show about emaciated people on the other side of the world tying duck feathers into bunches at breakneck speeds to earn two dollars a day, while a narrator smooths over the horrific conditions like, "A skilled technician sorts the feathers by length to prepare for the next stage of the process."

I know I sound like a Boomer mom wagging her finger and saying, "There are people suffering in sweatshops in Indonesia who would love to have your problems." But seriously, there are people suffering in sweatshops in Indonesia who would love to have our problems. In fact, there are people suffering in sweatshops right here in America (see "Meatpacking: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver"). Yet writers really think they're being deep and insightful by bemoaning the Sisyphean effort of typing 90,000 words of fiction while sipping tea in their pajamas.

It's normal to get discouraged and to feel like throwing yourself a pity party sometimes, but let's keep some perspective. Having the free time and solitude to write is a luxury. If you truly don't enjoy doing it, you can stop.


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