From One of the 20 Writers Under 40

Did you ever consider not becoming a writer?

There were plenty of dark moments. After I finished college, I got a job on Wall Street as a derivatives trader, but after a couple years of it I was calling in sick in order to work on my novel. By then, I’d been writing seriously for seven years. My second novel was nearly finished, and I figured it would take a year or two, at most, to become a published author. So I walked away from the bank and my cushy job. Two years later, after pouring everything I had into that second novel, I was broke, back in debt, and the book had been rejected by almost every literary agent in America. I moved back to Baltimore, into my parents’ basement, and took jobs in construction and drove an ambulance. It was a pretty depressing couple of years. I’d turned thirty, but I was living with my parents, doing manual labor, and making the same wages I had made as a teen-ager. Nothing I’d done in the intervening decade—getting into Cornell, my job in banking—mattered anymore. I had taken an enormous risk, and, as far as everyone could tell, I had failed miserably. Meanwhile, I continued to fail—the first year I lived with my parents, I applied to a bunch of M.F.A. programs and was rejected by all of them. Now, by this time, I’d written two novels—not things I’d dashed off and stuck in a drawer but books I’d painstakingly revised and rewritten, labored over for years. I didn’t consider myself a hobbyist. But, anyway—no, I never questioned that I was a writer. In fact, strange as it might sound, I never questioned that I was a good writer. I did, however, begin to seriously question my writing. It occurred to me that I couldn’t even define literature—not even to myself. I could give very erudite and intimidating answers to other people, the sort of bullshit that anyone with an English degree can throw up as a smokescreen, but I didn’t have a substantive answer that I believed in. I didn’t know why I liked the books I liked. So I decided I would throw everything away, everything I’d heard in college and everything else. I decided I would trust only myself—what I really believed and felt to be true. Which, of course, didn’t exactly occur overnight: it probably took the better part of 2004. But it was a very conscious effort. That was when things began to change. I think of it as year zero, though it was actually year ten. The cynical part of me says, Well, maybe it could have happened some other way—maybe you could have kept the cushy job and kept writing. But I really don’t think so. I think you really have to stare down the demons. You really have to know what making art is worth to you.

-Philipp Meyer, whose story “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone,” appeared in The New Yorker Summer Fiction: 20 Under 40 issue. It’s always good to hear that success doesn’t come easy, even to successful people.