In her radiant, resplendent Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert, who taught us how to embrace the paradoxical principles of creative living and rejoice in the marvels and mysteries of existence, tells the story of one of her friends who was an aspiring writer. Much like her, he wanted nothing more than to be published. Despite his determination, the only thing in his mailbox were rejections. As time went on, the young writer got more and more discouraged. What was the point? Why write at all if he wasn’t going to “make” something of it? “I don’t want to be just sitting around,” he grumbled to Gilbert, “I want this to all add up to something. I want this to become my job!” Tormented by the thought that all his hard work would come to “nothing,” the young writer sank into a serious depression. Eventually, he put down his pen and paper and gave up.
Why did this young man stop writing? Simple: he wasn’t willing to eat the shit sandwich.
What’s a shit sandwich?
The shit sandwich is a concept Ms. Gilbert borrowed from the four-letter-word-loving provocateur Mark Manson. The idea goes that anything worthwhile comes with its own stinky brand of shit sandwich. Every relationship, every city, every job, every profession has disadvantages.
The man of your dreams may possess everything you’ve ever wanted— a sharp mind, a good sense of humor, a gentle, sensitive nature— but have one serious flaw; perhaps he has an obnoxious obsession with recounting movie plots or has children from a previous partner.
The city you’ve always romanticized may be picturesque on postcards but have sidewalks littered with heroin needles and a serious homeless problem.
No matter how glittery or glamorous a job may seem, there will always be tedious things lurking beneath its glossy exterior. A fashion editor, for instance, may get free Prada handbags and sip champagne in chiffon, but she may also have to work on a tight deadline and deal with constantly being chewed out by her tyrannical boss. A famous musician may get to play in front of thousands of screaming fans but also have to live out of a suitcase on a tour bus. A doctor may possess the prestige of a PhD and make a six figure salary, but also have to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt before he can call himself a doctor. As Gilbert writes:
“What Manson means is that every single pursuit…comes with its own brand of shit sandwich, its own lousy side effects. As Manson writes with profound wisdom, “Everything sucks, some of the time.” You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to deal with. So the question is not so much ‘What are you passionate about?’ The question is ‘What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?'”
Gilbert’s friend claimed he wanted to be a writer but he wasn’t willing to do what it took to be a writer. The demoralizing rejection letters, the lack of respect or recognition, the concerned looks of sensible relatives: this is the stomach-churning shit you have to eat if you want to be a writer. Writing isn’t just Pulitzer prizes and interviews with Oprah: it’s years of toiling away in obscurity, it’s hurtful criticism, it’s losing contest after contest, it’s impersonal form rejection letters. But if you love writing— or anything— enough, you can tolerate the shit sandwich that accompanies your sumptuous feast of a three-course dinner. The joy of writing— of simply putting one word against another— makes up for the heartbreaking years of being a nobody and the sting of a harsh review in the New Yorker.