You might have heard of the “Proust Questionnaire.” It’s a set of questions about values and dreams improperly attributed to French writer Marcel Proust. (He actually answered it a few times, but didn’t come up with it himself.) We came up with our own version, because what we do for a living, spend our money on and why usually reveals more about our personalities than we’d expect.
We caught up with Susan Orlean, author and New Yorker staff writer, from her home in Los Angeles.
Fill in the blank, money can’t buy you happiness but it can buy you ____:
All of the accoutrements of happiness. It can buy you time. It will allow you the opportunity for happiness.
In a next life, what would your career be?
What I really would like to be a backup singer, so that I get all of the pleasure of being on stage and singing, but none of the pressure of having to be the front man.
What is the hardest part about your job that no one knows?
Performance anxiety. The feeling as a writer what you’re really doing is essentially a performance, even though it’s on the page, you’re exposing yourself and presenting yourself to the world. And you become fair game for either being ignored or rejected or criticized, and that part of it is really tough, it’s emotionally very challenging, and no matter how many times you go through it, it’s still a very difficult thing. And hard.
The fact is that if you’re doing this kind of work, you want it to be liked and you want it to be read, and you want it to be accepted. So it’s a bit specious to say you’re doing it for yourself, because then you could write a little journal and stick it under your pillow. So if you’re publishing you are asking for the approval of the unknown out there who are reading your work, and it’s a really hard part of it.
When did you realize writing could be a career?
I’m still waiting for that moment, but you know it’s all I’ve ever done as a profession. Right out of college I waited tables briefly, as I feel everyone should, little experience in the service industry. And then I started writing. And luckily, I was living somewhere very inexpensive. I was earning very little money but it was enough to support myself.
What is something you bought that you now completely regret buying?
Oh my god, how many hours do you have for this answer? [laughter] Oh my god, let me give you a little background. I am an early adopter, so any curious interesting gadget or gizmo, I want. There’s a trail of tears that marks many many purchases of things that were exciting and interesting and seductive. Very beta, very not ready for consumers to be enjoying, and I was there in the front line, buying it.
What advice do you wish someone gave you before your started your career?
Number one, take your time. That the arc of a career is long, and it doesn’t all to feel that it’s happening instantly. And in that case, enjoy it, absorb it, find your way and don’t push so hard. Be ambitious, but be aware that there’s a timeline that extends beyond the horizon. And that’s really hard when you’re young, and it may have been advice that had I been given, I would have ignored anyway.