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A place I'd rather be

One of my favorite Jerry Seinfeld moments is not from his hugely successful TV series, but from a documentary entitled Comedian, which follows Jerry’s career after Seinfeld had ended.

The scene in question takes place just before Jerry’s first live concert following the end of his TV show. Jerry is talking with a younger comedian in his late 20s. He seems nervous, and the other comedian says, “What are you feeling nervous about? YOU’RE JERRY SEINFELD!”

“Yeah,” says Jerry. "That’ll get me two minutes.”

Then the young comedian starts complaining to Jerry about his life: “I’ve been doing stand-up gigs in clubs for eight years now,” he says, “hoping to make it big. But I don’t know, Jerry, it just doesn’t seem to be happening for me the way it’s happened for you. Meanwhile, all my friends are getting on with their lives, building other careers, getting married, buying a house, having kids and a dog…I don’t know, maybe I should cash in and try something else.”

He’s obviously fishing for Jerry to give him some encouragement. Jerry turns to him and says, with a slight, knowing smile, “You got someplace else you’d rather be?”

After five decades as a freelance writer, I have relatively little to show for it in material terms, despite having published eight collections of essays. I remember going to a writers’ conference early in my career where the keynote speaker said, “Why do we write? For fame, fortune, and the love of beautiful women.”

Her tone was facetious, of course, but I was in my late 30s then, and only beginning to realize what it was I would actually settle for, namely, the respect of my peers, a living, and a life shared with someone I loved.

Still, I kept thinking of Samuel Johnson’s sobering words: “Only a fool writes for anything but money.” Looking back now on my writing “career,” the rewards seem modest, at best: I am an established “mid-list” writer, which means a writer most publishers do not expect to make money on (and there are fewer and fewer of these). People often ask me, “Do you really make a living as a writer?” My stock answer is, “What year?” Only a few of my books have earned back their advances, and in fact the only one that has proved a reliable and lasting source of royalties is a college anthology of nature writing that I co-edited some thirty years ago.

My so-called “fame” such as it is, has been modest, and mostly local. Whenever friends introduce me to someone from off-Cape, they usually append the phrase, “the famous writer,” which is proof enough that I’m not. After all, no one introduces Stephan King as “the famous writer.”

I have received a few modest awards, and one major one. But, I can hear you saying, did anyone make you choose to be a writer? No, of course not. Would I really rather have done something else with my limited creative talents? I honestly can’t think of any. Another one of my stock comments, which sounds flippant but is actually quite sincere, is that I became a writer due to a lack of imagination – that is, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

The fundamental question is quite simple: Is there something else I’d rather be doing than scribbling out a living writing about Cape Cod? Is there some challenge I’d rather be pursuing than trying to give words to its beauty and mysteries? Is there any greater reward or satisfaction you can have than doing what you love and – at least thus far - making a living at it, than putting your creations out in the world, not knowing how or if they will be received, but knowing that they are as solid as you can make them, that they represent the best you can offer of your given talents and crafted efforts?

So no, Jerry, I guess there is no other place I’d rather be.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.