Why I Write: The Long Con

Your House Will Pay author Steph Cha shot for the moon—and got away with it.

steph cha, california book club
Dustin Snipes

The thing is, doing what you love and passing it off as work, a career, even—it’s the ultimate scam. The victim is either no one at all (it’s your life) or everyone else (no man is an island), but there’s no question that you’re getting away with something—and not just a sly little trick but a sustained and life-defining con. I write full-time (which is to say, I’m a novelist but also a screenwriter, editor, anthologist, freelancer, and occasional speaker and teacher, as “writing full-time” tends to go), and while I have several reasons to write, some of them even good, I mainly do it to keep the scam going.

I know a lot of writers now, but even as a child of Los Angeles, I grew up without knowing, or so much as hearing about, a single flesh-and-blood person who wrote for a living. I guess this is because most of the adults I encountered were either teachers or Korean immigrants, and none were within gossiping distance of the publishing industry. I was a fervent reader, though, and I revered books and dreamed about one day writing them in the same way that children dream of becoming astronauts and ballet dancers, with the understanding that other outcomes are far more likely.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

I went to law school, of course. I had vague intentions of practicing, but it was more that law school was more school, and school was the one thing I’d always known how to do. (Also—and this is off topic but certainly relevant; if the prompt were “why I am able to write,” it would be half the essay—my parents paid my way, allowing me to make subsequent life choices with a freedom that no one and everyone deserves.) The summer after my first year, I got a job at a truly terrible firm, and I realized with some horror that the freeway was ending: almost 20 years of homework assignments and multiple-choice tests merging into the plain, rugged road of actual adulthood.

I decided to shoot the moon. I started to write a novel.

It takes a certain kind of freak to sit in a room alone and write hundreds of pages with only the dim hope that they might one day become a book, but for the next year and a half, that’s how I spent my free time. No one asked me to do this, just as no one has ever asked me to tweet (I count this as writing, a not-insignificant part of the con) or write Yelp reviews (almost 4,000 to date, well into the millions of words). I’m older now and have produced four novels, as well as an exquisite toddler. There are times when I don’t want to write, when the act feels like a chore I go to great, petulant lengths to avoid, and frankly it’s hard to remember how I wrote before people began giving me money and deadlines. Yet writing remains my most critical compulsion. I write to understand the world and mark my place in it, and while I derive plenty of joy from, say, family and friends, I am only really at peace when I’m satisfied with my work.

Because that’s what writing has become for me—no longer just my hobby, my passion, but my work. It’s the marriage phase, the beautiful ever after, and I’m continually amazed that this is where I get to live. After all, why should I get to do this? The only way I can make my case is to ensure, to the best of my ability, that I’m not the sole beneficiary of my grift. And so I write to connect with other people, to tell stories that generate the same space for discovery and recognition that I find when I read. I write about what I think is important and interesting—family, community, justice, crime, Los Angeles—in the hope that I can capture the odd, true, essential thing and express it in a way that resonates with others, creating something of value outside myself.•

Steph Cha is the author of the novels Your House Will Pay, Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, and Dead Soon Enough.
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