I always wanted to write fiction. As a little kid I did it all in my head. While other kids played with toys, I would pace around my parents’ living room conducting an imaginary epic in the film reel of my mind. In high school I seemed to be the only one who enjoyed group discussions in English class, and I liked reading the classics. I thought a brilliant writing career was inevitable in the future.

I graduated from college in 2009, an English major, and totally depressed. I was up to my eyeballs in student debt. I was steeped in the horrific beauty of 20th century American literature. I was worried I would default on my student loans and destroy my cosigning parents’ credit. We were in the midst of a financial crisis I didn’t fully understand (I was an English major, after all) and, although Barack Obama was now president, I didn’t believe any serious change was coming. I was also acutely aware — from reading plenty of intersectional critical theory — of the white privilege that had led me hither. I understood that privilege, but rather than face it, I let the injustice of it be an excuse to turn away from academia, from business, from further developing myself as a thinker or a leader.

I still wanted to write, but I knew I had to earn a living. I did not want to be that friend who crashes on your couch and eats all your food because he is a struggling writer who can’t afford his keep. I told myself a good story about a guy who would work hard as a waiter and write terrific literature in his free time. I moved to Maine to work in the seasonal service industry.
And it paid off. I made thousands of dollars as a server, paying down my debt and learning to support myself as an independent adult. But the lifestyle led me further astray from any meaningful action or literary achievement. My friends and I treated ourselves to lavish meals in the restaurants we worked for. We worked all day, hiked beautiful coastal peaks at sunset, drank all night, and somehow got to work the next morning looking fresh and presentable. And it wasn’t just about the party. I was connected to an exciting new world of culinary beauty, and I found a sense of professionalism in table service that I still believe is underappreciated and under-practiced in American restaurant culture. I took myself seriously as a server and I made sure to leave myself time for serious reading in the mornings. All the while I still believed, and told people, that I was a writer.

I knew that, sooner or later, I would prove to be like Richard Wright, who worked long days in the post office, then wrote Native Son by night. Or maybe I would be like Hemingway, working all sorts of odd jobs and having unhealthy adventures, but “working well” in the mornings. And sometimes I did. I have pages and pages of unpublished, half-baked stories and would-be novels written at random intervals when I found a moment to breathe and then to write.
But none of it seemed to add up to anything. A finished product eluded me.

The restaurants I worked for rewarded my hard work by promoting me into positions of higher responsibility. By 2019 I was running a mid-sized hotel with an attached high-volume restaurant. I was working 80-hour weeks and writing little besides email. Although I was ostensibly “successful,” that finished product seemed further away than ever.

Working as a server was a great counterpoint to my college education because it gave me the opportunity to learn a bit about how businesses work, and to understand that all business is not inherently dirty. I wish that I had come earlier to the conclusion that writing is a form of business, in addition to being a high art. Writing is, in fact, among the oldest forms of commercial activity. The idea that it should be purely artistic was born out of the Romantic period in Europe, which was mostly the domain of wealthy white men.

If you want to be a well-fed writer, think of yourself as a small business that produces high quality manuscripts, hopefully at a profit. Your personal income, call it a salary, is one of the business’s costs. In the early stages you might need other revenue streams to support manufacturing your main product, and there a hundred million of them out there. Make a business plan and a budget and you will be surprised how much less daunting it is to conceive of making a living as a writer.
At the very least, do not be afraid — or too proud — to spend some time reading up on economic principles and personal finance. It is not a betrayal of your inner artist, and it can only empower you.

I thought by avoiding the university system, or the traditional press, or the publishing world, I was somehow excusing myself from complicity in the wrongs of our social structure. But the reality is that restaurants are not immune from that either. Nothing is. At the end of the day, claiming historical injustice toward other people as a reason not to take part in the great discussion, was just a way to cover up my fears that what I write might not be good enough, or smart enough, or woke enough. And that position not only robs myself and others of my voice, which might just do some good, but it also elides the true victims of that injustice and makes it somehow all about me.

I promise not to do that anymore. I may not write it right at first, but I’m not waiting anymore to try.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Hope, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.