The fear: "I don't know how to act/look/sound like a real writer."
Read: The Fante Bukowski series by Noah van Sciver
The first time I read one of the Fante Bukowski graphic novels, I laughed so hard that I’m pretty sure I pulled a muscle. I also thought: Oh my god! Where has this book been all my life???
Fante Bukowski is the hilarious - yet somehow still quite poignant - story of a struggling writer. His real name is Kelly Perkins, and he’s twenty-three years old with a dubious amount of writing talent. But in an effort to rebel against his conservative dad, he’s decided to reinvent himself as a capital-W Writer and strive for fame and fortune in the literary world.
Part of this involves renaming himself Fante Bukowski after his two literary heroes - (this dude and this dude) - who embody what he considers the proper “down and out” writer’s lifestyle. And that in itself, really, tells you all that you need to know about what makes this graphic novel so funny. Fante rarely - if ever - writes any publishable sentences. But he’s a real whiz at doing all the other stuff that so-called Real Writers are meant to do: getting drunk at 9am, scrupulously avoiding a day job, living out of (sometimes terrifyingly) seedy motels, and pushing the keys down hard on his genuine vintage typewriter (never a Macbook! Lol, God forbid.).
Basically, Fante is cosplaying as the sort of Great White Male author who has long gone out of fashion - but with so little self-awareness that you just can’t help but laugh. Even if you’d actually run a mile from someone like this, if you ever met him in real life.
There are 3 books altogether in van Sciver’s series, which trace Fante’s high-spirited, but bumbling, quest to make the world of letters sit up and notice him. Along the way, we meet other side-characters who also inhabit this weird and wonderful universe of writing - from the bonafide young talent Audrey Catron, who’s struggling with the consequences of literary fame, to the obnoxious, if very successful and cut-throat, agent Ralph Bigsburgh (who, obviously, takes every available chance to roast poor old Fante).
The series is so much fun! I read the whole thing on my couch in one day, and felt totally reinvigorated afterwards. Basically, what it amounts to is a hugely entertaining comedy of manners - satirizing the airs of this particular industry, while still keeping things light and silly enough to retain a sense of warmth. In some ways, I think that van Sciver’s biggest accomplishment is that you don’t end up hating any of the characters in his books - even though all their insecurities and weird tics are so openly on display. Everyone comes across as a relatable human being, even when they’re saying and doing some truly ridiculous things.
In fact, what I felt most of all after reading this series was…. well, seen. Because which artist has ever lived a life truly free of pretensions, am I right? We might not all have as anachronistic a vision of success as Fante does. But when it comes down to it, it’s easy enough to relate to his core feelings - like his hunger to make it big, or his constant frustration that no one will notice him. And of course, his struggle to project the image of a Real and Serious Artist - whether or not he’s doing any of the actual writing work to qualify as one.
On pretension, imposter syndrome, and the Artist’s Lifestyle
A number of years ago - when I was first starting to put my own creative work out into the world - I read a piece of writing advice on the internet that proved extremely helpful to me. That piece of advice was: Stop thinking of yourself as a Writer all the time. Instead, make the shift to just thinking of yourself as A person who writes.
The point of this advice, I think, is that it’s easy to get caught up in trying to embody a certain ideal of the Artist. Especially when you’re first getting started in the career, with not that much work behind your name yet… it’s easy to spend a lot of energy trying to look like a cool/interesting/bohemian/intellectual success. Rather than focusing on that ordinary old action of sitting in front of a blank page, and putting out new sentences on the regular.
But really, in the grand scheme of things, that action is the foundation! And in some ways - at least for long time in your career - everything else will be completely irrelevant: how cool or uncool the town that you live in might be, what kinds of photos you post on your Instagram feed. The clothes you wear, the typewriter that you have (or more likely: don’t have) on your desk, the manners and speech that you might adopt... None of that stuff has anything to do with the core thing that actually makes you a writer, or not a writer.
Which is your answer to the simple question: Yo. Did you write any words today?
If you did, then you’re the real deal. And you don’t have to feel like an imposter.
This advice helped me so much when I was just starting out in my career! Like so many other creatives, I struggle a lot with the pressure of trying look a certain way, to other people. So hearing this advice was kind of a big gamechanger for me.
Of course - as time has gone on and I’ve become more settled in my own creative routines - I’ve also begun to understand that things aren’t always this black-and-white simple. There are often days or months - or maybe even whole years - when real writers can’t make new sentences on the page, because things need to come together first inside their minds. Still, though, I think that there’s something quite fundamentally comforting about this idea that the artist’s life is about what you’re actually doing, over and above how you look doing it. And in some ways, that always remains true, no matter how far along you get.
The other nice thing, I’ve found, is that in big picture, if you focus long and hard enough on the actual work, it will eventually lead you on quite naturally to the trappings of glitz and glamour. The residencies, the readings, the platform, and the creative friends (or if you’re Fante, the down-and-out stardom that involves falling over drunk and wetting yourself in public)… that mythical artist’s lifestyle, that is to say, that draws so many people to this profession in the first place.
What I’ve seen is that all that will come in good time - and eventually, prove to be all the fun that it’s reputed to be. But the main thing is to start, first, by having the actual work to launch you out into the world, and connect you meaningfully to other people… to learn how to love that quiet, ordinary act of putting things together at your desk. The work with its own deep, inherent joys is what this is all about, in the first place. And it’s so helpful to learn how to make a life around it - around actually being a writer - before going out with all guns blazing, acting like you are one.
If you struggle with this issue of posing as, vs actually being, a flourishing creative, then first of all, !! don’t feel alone. I 100% feel you.
And second of all, here are some extra resources that I’ve found to be very helpful in my own journey (besides the Fante Bukowski collection). I hope that they might help you too, so I’ve written a little synopsis for each:
Richard Mirabella’s “On Writing With a Day Job” , from Catapult.
I love this essay! I read it so many times when it first came out! Mirabella gives an incredibly honest, un-airbrushed account of what it feels like to live the sort of creative life that most people have (but don’t advertise to others) - where they’re doing their art on the one hand, and doing boring things that make money on the other.
I especially love this paragraph, where he talks about the pressures to keep up the appearance of living a “writerly life”. As yes - as he says, the only thing that can really alleviate this pressure is to stop obsessing about the lifestyle, and go back to making actual art again:
Other writers are living writerly lives, while you’re filing and answering emails. Here you are sitting in a cubicle or at a meeting, and your friend is in the woods finishing her novel. People are traveling and going to monthlong residencies and you are not a real writer. It’s a poisonous feeling, and you need to wash it out with reading, with time away from social media (which is the hardest for me), and, yes, with writing.
Rosalie Knecht’s “Let’s Talk About the Fantasy of the Writer’s Lifestyle” , from LitHub.
An oldie but goodie! Super sharp and funny - Knecht skewers the fantasy of the “Artist’s Lifestyle”, and points out how similar it is to the bohemian pretensions of an Anthropologie catalogue (lol). Like Mirabella, she gives a clear-eyed look at what the (largely ordinary, only sometimes glamorous) lives of most creative people look like, and then concludes with this wonderful bit of insight:
If I were speaking to my 14-year-old self, who had already fully assimilated the writer-lifestyle-fantasy from various sources, I would say this: First of all, good news. You’re going to write books. Second, you’re going to spend very little time on terraces or piazzas of any kind. There will be vintage tilework in your future, but it will be the lavender-and-black extravaganza of your circa-1986 bathroom in Queens. Your train travel will mostly take place on New Jersey Transit... When you stay up too late and sleep through your writing time, it will be because you were watching Bob’s Burgers online, not carousing with jazz musicians…
The important thing is, though, that you will get to write.
Happy reading - and healing!