I had a good friend call my writing a hobby not too long ago. A hobby, as if I enjoy writing. Sitting down for hours, trying (and often failing) to create worlds that will engage readers. A hobby is done for enjoyment, no? But perhaps, I’m wrong. Perhaps my friend is right and this is a hobby. Perhaps I enjoy the tortures of writing too much.
A hobbyist by definition pursues “an activity or interest for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation.” When I walk around New York City and snap a photo, I’m practicing a hobby. I don’t aspire to be a professional photographer, but I enjoy taking snapshots and sharing them with friends. I don’t plan on making photography my main occupation. It will always be a pleasurable pastime, but writing is different. And it’s true; I don’t make any money on my writing. No one is paying me a salary for my stories or poems. And if I manage to finish a book-length work and land a publication contract, it’s likely I won’t make a living off my writing alone.
But, writing is not my hobby. I write to be. I see stories in everyday life and write. And yes, I spend most of my day at a university working in finance. As the first person in my working-class immigrant family to go to college, I had to be responsible so I chose a practical business degree over a liberal arts education. As much as I resented that choice, I’m glad I went the practical route because the day job helps support my writing life. When I get home, I eat dinner with my husband, wait for him to go to sleep, and then head down to my home office to write until one or two in the morning. And when I don’t write, I run a literary website. I curate, edit, and promote the work of other writers and poets because writing is not just about the individual, it’s about community. Without the works of others in circulation, your own work doesn’t stand a chance to succeed.
Writing is about power. It is not about permission or acceptance. It is not pointless. It can be vain and arrogant. It is inconsistent. When my writing fails to gain an audience, I wallow for a bit, but I don’t give up. I begin a new writing project and work to gain a modest audience. But what drives me to write is not the prestige or accolades that may follow, it’s the challenge to create something that will outlive me.
Often, when I drag my body out into the world and communicate to some interested party that I’m a writer, I hear some form of the following: “I’ve always wanted to write,” “I used to write poetry in college but I wasn’t any good,” “I wrote a book about capitalism and evil and how they are mutually exclusive.” I prefer these statements to the questions that follow: “What do you write about?” “Are you published?” “Where can I find your work?” “Who did you study with?” “Who do you know?”
Those questions feel like a kick in the solar plexus because I have to resist the reflex to sanctify what I do. There was a time when I believed I needed an institution to acknowledge me. It was why I went for an MFA, why I attended workshops and writer’s conferences, and why I sat paralyzed for two years after earning my MFA not submitting to literary journals a word of the overwrought stories I worked on for years. That time is over. When I hear those questions, I don’t rush to validate what I am, I declare it. I’m a writer. It’s my identity.
The gatekeepers, professors, writers, poets, critics, journals, publishers of books, the clicks and shares, the viral content will all exist with or without my literary output. Literary success and artistic integrity may well be mutually exclusive for me. But that doesn’t mean I’ll sit on a plush leather chair and create for pleasure and relaxation. I’ll keep fighting, obsessing, and fulfilling my obligation to write that best way I can because I’m the working-class daughter of immigrants who has learned to strive without permission.
Gessy Alvarez is founder and managing editor of the literary website, Digging through the Fat. Her work has appeared in Entropy, tNY Press, Extract(s), Literary Orphans, Thrice Fiction, Bartleby Snopes, Pure Slush, Pank, and other publications.