“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.”
– Ernest Hemingway, “The Sun Also Rises”

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We’ve all been asked at least once in college “What did you want to be when you grew up?” Presumably, the answer is supposed to be funny, in either a lighthearted — “haha I wanted to be a fireman” — sort of way, or a self-deprecating, “I used to want to be an archaeologist, but now I’m content to be a pencil pusher.” My answers have mostly been of the former variety; apparently, when I was three or four, I wanted to be “a doorman or a squirrel.” Don’t ask, because I have no idea.

For the last year or two, when that question is reworked and I’m asked what I want to be after I graduate, my go-to answer is always the same — I want to be a writer. I’ve successfully brushed off any follow-up questions about what type of writing I plan to do by claiming that I’m still figuring it all out. But here’s a question I have trouble answering — what exactly do I mean when I say I want to be a writer?

Obviously, I can answer by saying that I want to be a writer because I want to write. But that would be a lie, or a half-lie to be more precise. Let’s examine the diction. I don’t say that I want to write for a living — I say that I want to be a writer. Because for me, being a writer has moved beyond the craft and become tied to a certain lifestyle, a persona, an all-encompassing image that I find myself drawn to and disgusted by. But let’s start at the beginning.

As a kid, I had weird reading habits. I would read the same books over and over again, yet refuse to read anything new. My parents gave me some Hemingway to read, just “The Old Man and the Sea” and some of the short stories. I liked them, but I certainly didn’t have an epiphanic moment that inspired me, right then and there, to become a writer. My mom gave me more Hemingway, this time in the form of a memoir by A.E. Hotchner recounting his decade long friendship with Papa. I couldn’t read it fast enough, leaving saucy fingerprints all over the pages as I ate dinner, but devoured the descriptions of marlin fishing, daiquiri drinking and schmoozing with Sartre and his mistress. “Man,” I thought, “I want to be him when I grow up.”

It was fun playing Hemingway for awhile. I bought a guayabera, poured dashes of rum into glasses of coke and called them Cuba Libres, tried to take an interest in boxing and spoke epigrammatically about the nature of life and death whenever I caught a fish.

At this point, you’re probably wondering where this essay is going. Or, more likely, you’re thinking “So what?” What I’ve described may sound like nothing more than a game of teenage dress-up, a more mature version of when I used to don my grandmother’s old sun hat and a laptop bag and call myself Indiana Jones.

The distinction is that when you’re seven years old, no one expects you to be an archaeologist. But at my age, adopting the visage is quickly becoming insufficient without some results, or at least serious preparations for them. And it goes without saying that reading Hemingway and reading about Hemingway, are two very different things.

I did grow out of the Hemingway one. But just as Ernest grew tired of his wives, I grew tired of simply emulating him. Luckily, the writer persona is a drug sold by every newspaper, magazine and blog. Profiles and interviews of writers, not their actual work, became my texts of choice. A New Yorker profile? Better than a new novel.

I’ve gone through many different love affairs with authors’ Wikipedia pages, but I can split those writers into four basic categories. There’s the cosmopolitan polemicist (Christopher Hitchens, Pier Paolo Pasolini), the rustic man’s man (Hemingway, Jim Harrison), the counterculture libertine (Hunter S Thompson, Charles Bukowski) and the passionate polymath (Susan Sontag, David Foster Wallace). You can already see some recurring motifs — socialite, well-recorded vices, prolific output, complicated love life, toes the line between academia and the public, wide-ranging interests and a general aura of … “cool.”

In fact, I’ve met one of my writer-idols. Sebastian Junger, author of “The Perfect Storm,” war correspondent and general badass, gave a talk in Cape Cod that I attended. After he finished there was a book signing, where I approached him with the same cautious reverence that I imagine one would approach a Swami with. As I shook his muscular, callused hand, I imagined that we were silently acknowledging our affinity, that I was telling him that I wanted to be him when I grew up. I asked him to sign my book. He spelled my name wrong. He said “next.” I spent the next week thinking “I really fucked that one up.” It was as if I had read all of his books not for the information they contained, but to sustain a fantasy that behind the books there was a someone who one day I could be.

I won’t psychoanalyze myself too much — not out of a fear of discovering some dark repressed secret. Rather, it’s because the source of my attraction to the writer persona is pretty obvious. If you grow up — and especially go through high school — as nerdy and not particularly social, the idea that you can combine smart and sexy is intoxicating. In other words, if you can emerge from your dorm room, unshaven, wearing only pajama bottoms, claiming that you’re “going out for a smoke,” and still feel cool, you become seduced.

What happens when you become seduced by the writer persona?

You frequent coffee shops. You drink your coffee black.

You wear a bathrobe all day.

You buy a three-pack of moleskins, and although you label them “fiction,” “poetry,” and “journalism,” you don’t really write much in them.

You refer to someone you’re hooking up with as your “paramour.” You use the term “brief but passionate.”

You start smoking by just puffing on bummed Parliaments. Then you move to blue American Spirits. Then black. Then you start rolling your own, and roll them during conversations. Finally, you get an E-Cig, so the world will know that you need nicotine to fuel your creative energy. Because illness is metaphor, right?

You carry small books in your jacket pockets.

You must tell everyone, at every party, what substances you are on, and how much you consumed.

You buy Playboy for the articles, but are easily distracted.

You read a profile of Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, and you read this sentence, “Next came well-reported excesses, which included heavy drinking and cocaine binges. These and a flurry of infidelities finished his marriage.” You feel a pang of envy.

You miss the point.

You realize that for several years, you thought you were preparing to write a book, when you were really preparing for your dust-jacket photo.

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