On being a fiction writer

Phil Lemos was the first person I “met” at my graduate school program. Why? Because I was fortunate enough to have him as my Big Brother. It was a match made by the writing gods, and I’m forever grateful to have been paired up with Phil. Don’t forget to find your way over to his blog after you’re done reading this. He’s quite the funny guy.

Phil and I at my first grad school residency

This week I finished the first draft of a novel. Also this week, somebody asked me what I do for a living. (I’ve been unemployed long enough to develop an intense aversion toward fielding that question.)

I paused for a minute and then said I’m a fiction writer. The logical next question was, “How long have you worked as a fiction writer?”

“My entire life,” I said.

And it’s true. Even when I was a gas station attendant, stockbroker or payroll supervisor, I was a fiction writer, even if I may not have realized it.

My career as a fiction writer began early in my childhood, when I wrote elaborate short stories in grade school that entertained and bewildered my teachers. The creative side of my mind invented a series of fictional universes and I pumped out stories in those universes. When my teacher asked us to write a 3-page story, I wrote a 12-page story. While the extra pages could easily have driven them batty, my teachers would always suggest to my parents that I pursue a career in writing.

Writing soon took a back seat, though. I didn’t major in creative writing or English at Syracuse, though I took three writing classes (two A’s and a B+). I graduated and the real world intervened.  I had to get a “job” that would “pay the bills.”  I spent eight years writing, but as a newspaper reporter, not a fiction writer. Then I got bored and also discovered that newspapers were slowly dying. So I left journalism and became a stock broker.

Four years ago, for a variety of reasons, I walked away from my career as a stockbroker (none of which involve any clairvoyance regarding the looming stock market crash). I sold my practice and tried to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I began writing again – first in short, private bursts on my laptop and then in emailed short stories and mock newspaper articles to my friends, who frequently wrote back, “You should do this for a living.”

That’s when it clicked. Fiction writing was what I always wanted to do. I just never had the chance to do it.

I’ve spent the past couple of years pursuing my Master of Fine Arts in fiction. The novel whose first draft I just finished will be my thesis. I’ll spend my final semester revising it. Writing the novel has been fun, painful and exhausting all at once. Obviously, I hope to find a publisher and make some money.

There are long odds against that.

At times I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” It’s counterintuitive to devote a lot of time to something in which the opportunity for financial success is minimal. Yet people do it all the time – athletes, musicians, actors, hoping for that opportunity to seize.

I guess writers are cut from the same cloth. For every Jonathan Franzen, Mary Karr, T. S.  Eliot or Diablo Cody there’s a struggling writer out there hoping to find the right hands to place their work. But even if it doesn’t work out for me, no matter what career path I land on, I can always say that I’m a fiction writer.


  1. Tina DeMarco says:

    What more to say, than I love this post!!!!! It is fabulous. From the heart, as always Phil.

    Thanks so much for sharing this with us.


  2. Brooke (Books Distilled) says:

    Yay, Phil! It’s funny, I sent Eric a guest post too (I think it’s going up next week), and I made similar points–that I finally realized I don’t have to wait to be published to become a writer–because I already am a writer (and so are all of us!). Hooray for you, finishing your novel!

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