The Disease

T he desire to write is a disease, a congenital condition. Writers are born with the germ. We don’t contract it later on. Hopefully we discover what’s wrong with us early, otherwise perhaps we wind up institutionalized rather than published. I am sure there’s a cure — a traditional education, a 9-5 job, or an angst-free childhood. Any or all of these things, and myriad others, can drain the urge, freeze the words before they reach the page. But the germ remains, dormant, waiting for the right conditions to start to grow.

I don’t remember a time before I defined myself as a writer. I found a shelter in books as an early, avid reader. I went there, into Story, as often as possible, made a home there, when the real world wasn’t very comfortable or very friendly. I don’t remember the moment where I realized that I could build that place, not just visit what another had created. But there must have been that moment. There are reams of paper, filled with childish hand … bad poetry, maudlin short stories, fantastical plays, rambling essays. Later I wrote newspaper articles for school papers, then real ones. I remember my first byline for The Riverdale Press. I wrote about a Seder dinner for Russian immigrants at the local Jewish Center. I bought the paper at a real newsstand and floated around looking at my name during my commute to work. I would have written about anything, and did – little league games, local parades, shower shock (don’t ask.) All I have ever wanted to do was write.

But, of course, I have done many other things, the usual – babysitter, waitress, retail sales girl. After college, certain that I could never make a living as a writer, or just lacking the nerve, the confidence, the financial backing – I went into publishing. And I worked in the industry for nearly ten years – a closet writer, stealing time, working on subway trains, over bad take-out lunches, on weekends, in the wee hours of the morning and late into the night. But there were months where I didn’t write a word (remember what I said about that 9-5 job?). I remember feeling an unhappy agitation during those times, a vital part of myself neglected, abandoned, laying fallow. And then — epiphany. The dream was drifting. I was letting it go. I knew I’d look back and hate myself for never even trying to make it, never trying to write what I really wanted to write. So I did what a writer must, I gave up the romance of it all, got serious about the craft, the hours, the tenacity it takes to tell a story – a real story with a beginning, a middle and an end, populated by people who live and breathe. I did exactly what I now tell people they must if they want to be a writer – I wrote. Every day. Every day until someone said they’d buy my work for a nickel and a cheese sandwich. And then I wrote more, worked harder.

Now I am a full time writer, in other words a terminal patient, fully immersed in the symptoms of my condition. But this is where romance ends, because the writing life, the act of creating and publishing, making a living creatively, requires the same effort and discipline it takes to make a living doing anything, perhaps more. I write from 5 AM to Noon. I don’t wait for the muse, or fuss over whether conditions are right. (I am a mother, so conditions for writing are almost never right.) I have no rituals or special needs (caffeine helps, though). I am just present, working, until I’m flying. The process for me is equal parts work and magic. There is a craft, a thing that I practice and hone. But there is something more gauzy, indefinable, something that doesn’t always come when its called, a freedom, a flight, a loss of self, where the pages click by and characters speak and you disappear into the world you’re creating. But if this doesn’t come, the real writer still writes. She must.

Often, at booksignings and speaking engagements, I am approached by aspiring writers, eager to be published. They ask me about agents and advances, copyrights and publicists, copies sold and bestseller lists. I give them the few answers I have, and tell them what I know to be true — that none of those things matter. Writers write because we have to; we are compelled by our disease. We write long before we’re published, and we will write if we never publish another word. Publishing is incidental, something we seek as we write every day, trying to get better than we were the day before. I tell them that getting published takes a little bit of ability, a little bit of luck, and sheer, never-say-die tenacity. There’s really nothing more to it.

Many people look disappointed, suspicious, as though I have a secret, some shortcut to success, that I will not share. I don’t. I live my own advice. If there’s another way to be a working, published writer, I don’t know it. But I always know the real writer, the fellow patient, suffering the disease that wants no cure. She’s sitting in the back of the room, clutching a notebook, too shy to raise her hand. She’s listening and observing. And she’s writing down every word she hears.