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Writer's Block

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Must be the time of year -- that "back to school" seasonal change, another summer gone. Perhaps it's the perennial writing scandal that brings the writing profession to mind: This time, New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer vacating his vaunted post amid plagiarism revealed. Maybe it's time to reflect on Nora Ephron's death and finally acknowledge that another one of the greats is gone during a summer of literary loss. Whatever it is, instead of working on other projects, many writers are musing about the merits and perils of their profession -- and the lives lived within it.

It all began with Frank Rich. Writing for New York magazine in his August 19th column, Rich reminisced about Ephron, restated the great loss he and her contemporaries felt and reminded us all of Ephron's magnitude in New York -- the ways in which she truly was "the heroine and not the victim" in her literary life (a take from her now famous 2006 Wellesley College commencement address).

It continued with author Dani Shapiro. And Shapiro pulled no punches.

Writing in a Psychology Today blog appearing on August 23, possibly to assuage her own angst about a flood of new writers entering the market -- possibly to attempt to keep hew own class sizes low -- Shapiro warned world-be Nora Ephrons from romanticizing the writer's life. "What it really means (to be a writer) is hard, hard work. It means tearing your hair out... It means rejection, failure, disappointment and confusion, only occasionally tempered with acceptance, triumph, joy and clarity.

"From a distance, it can look good," continued Shapiro, who authors autobiographical and semi-autobiographical books about many subjects, most notably, the photographer Sally Mann in her 2006 novel Black & White. "But if you get up close to a working writer, what you can see and hear and even smell is the steady thrum of tension and despair that is necessary to get the words to fall onto the page in the right way, in the right order, and with the possibility of lucidity, even poetry.

"This is living the writer's life: existing in a kind of dream state, at once here and not here, paying attention while listening to a faint, internal music."

And what is to happen to all these writers' wraiths in the world? If we're Shapiro or Rich, we write a column, possibly get paid for it and move on to the next labor of love. If we're Lehrer, we go to the has-been or almost-was pile and write a book about our plights several years after the incident. Perhaps, if you're like me these days, maybe we just let go, having worked this -- the writer's life -- out of our systems, realizing that a only a few of us actually make it at this game, and finally moved on?

Or maybe we have just thought we can move on.

I was bitten early: As a child growing up in Tulsa, Okla., I wanted to chronicle everything, from the playground rivalries at my working-class Catholic elementary school, to my parents' opinions on the 1984 presidential election. And I did, in my own hand-written, photocopied newspaper, distributed to every St. Mary's school third-grader who would read it. Luckily, tennis distracted me for a few formative years, but the bug came back. I attended Northwestern University for journalism school. Thinking I needed more direction and another "in" to the big tent, I applied to Columbia Journalism School. I first started freelance writing in earnest there, 10 years ago, after realizing on 9/11 that I had one advantage over many journalists and writers: I was there, in the center of it all. Moreover, I had the uncanny ability to sacrifice everything to be "there" in the center of it all.

Having worked in PR for a year between "real" jobs as a writer, I had also developed a knack for pitching, drawing upon the moxie it took to cold-call editors at any and every magazine possible to sell them on clients' products. At that point I discovered, I could combine my love of writing and storytelling with the thrill of the kill: landing one of my stories in a major national publication all tied up with my shiny byline. The first story I ever sold, about an acoustic coffeehouse in a Columbia chapel's crypt, was for Connie Rosenblum, then editor of the New York Times City section. She paid me $100.

At that point, I didn't care about the money. In the writers' life, most writers forget about the practicality of money -- and we value our own words far more than the market. Besides, I had written for the Times. Surely, others would follow. The possibilities of writing interesting stories for prominent publications required only a tight pitch, an eye-catching message line, and the courage to hit the "send" button to an editor sitting in one of the several thousand office cubicles in Midtown Manhattan. After all, if the response came back negative- - or even trenchant and draconian -- it was just a few sentences on a screen, as easily deleted as my own pitch probably had been.

The dance went on regularly for several years. But I was surviving the writer's life. I could pay rent. I bought a used car to travel for stories. I took over the payments for my large graduate school student loan -- for a few months, at least. And although I couldn't afford the plane tickets home to visit my family on holidays, I had enough to buy some clothes, a monthly commuter train pass and alcohol to survive it all.

But by the time I revisited my monthly list of pitches in the spring 2008, and the collection of work I had published -- several hundred feature stories, artistic reviews and other long-form articles for a variety of regional newspapers and magazines -- the writer's life was killing me. I had just moved to Brooklyn and commuted nearly every day to Manhattan for a fact-checking gig at a national magazine, returning every night on the train, usually with beer and laptop in hand, working on a freelance story. One of those evenings, riding the 2 train from Manhattan, I noticed a large advertisement for the National Writers Union, a well-meaning, but quixotic organization trying to protect the nonexistant rights of the even more chimerical writer. It said, "Professional Writers = Working Poor." And I realized that is exactly what I had become in my trendy, yet used blue jeans, with my vaunted degrees hanging on the walls of my Ft. Greene sublet, and my dreams of a book or a staff job nesting in the wrinkles of my face. I had become a hand-to-mouth feeding, uninsured, uninvested 32-year-old member of the working poor.

I don't think writers are lazy or in the least bit timorous, feeble or even self-effacing. Maybe just at some point, the process just beats the desire out of most of us and drives our energies and efforts elsewhere. My ex-girlfriend, a writer in Washington, D.C. who could no longer live the writer's life with another writer (me) rediscovered an old childhood love: Horses. In my case, my avocation turned to personally vanquishing many a writer's secret fuel: alcohol.

But when I saw Rich's and Shapiro's musings on Facebook I read them and re-posted. And I still feel the tug of writing -- the leftover memories of excitement upon discovering something interesting to write about, the exuberance upon completing a story and the thrill of waking up the next morning to see my work in print -- my name in bold beneath it. I feel the tug of people's reactions when I told them I was a journalist, not some bureaucrat or corporate slave. Most of all, I miss the pleasure of finding the perfect adjective in my thesaurus or the wittiest phrase from my internal encyclopedia to finish a sentence.

However, I won't miss cashing checks at the ACE financial services franchise with $2 in my pocket, or taking out a payday loans to cover rent. I won't miss fending off calls from Citibank when I missed the due date on my student loan payment. And I won't feel the emotional pull of my debt creeping up on me, grasping and smothering me like a resentful lover strangling me, paralyzing me.

I think I can return to being a regular person with a regular job entering data or churning out reports for a nameless, faceless client -- a person who pays her bills and saves for her future. But I fear that after months of it, I'll want to return to my writing life, and the fruitless hope that one day I'll be the one who, with hair prematurely grey and face showing the wear and tear, toughed it out to earn a spot at the New York Times -- or a book deal -- because someone finally noticed my talent.

I don't know quite what to do about it all. Perhaps I'll pull out my journal.