Why I’m Glad I Don’t Write For a Living
Since I was a very little girl–six, maybe, or seven–I thought I wanted to be a writer.
Of course, I had a very romanticized view of what ‘being a writer’ was. Especially in high school. It involved writing longhand and leatherbound books and having a study, whatever the hell that is. It involved typewriters and Hemingway in Cuba and suffering, which is like black licorice crack for Troubled Young Artists. It involved suffering for art, which is like black licorice crack coated in doughnuts and unicorns.
I guess I was more realistic than some. Instead of imagining my Pulitzer prize and immense popular appeal, I imagined myself in some barely-heated Parisian garret somewhere, imagining my Pulitzer. It was all very meta and clever. I smoked a lot of clove cigarettes for that dream.
But I’m an adult now. I’ve supported myself for a while. I know that starving isn’t romantic, and it isn’t pretty, and it isn’t fun. And it isn’t proud, either–you beg your friends for twenty bucks. You beg your parents for twenty bucks. You think about payday loans. You see the interest rates, you know what a royal screwing it is, and you still think about payday loans. Your power gets turned off, you remember that oh yeah, electronic writing devices don’t work without a charge, and you discover that writing longhand by the light of a single candle is not only irritating, but it also hurts, like, a lot, and there’s a reason word processing is a step up, and boy your hand is, like, burning.
So here’s the thing. I can pay my water bill with writing, and that’s enough for me.
People often, I think, confuse the idea of ‘writing professionally’ with the idea of ‘taking writing seriously’. They are, in fact, independent concepts, and one can very much exist without the other.
I take writing seriously. There’s nothing I take more seriously, except possibly soft-boiling eggs (which is a serious subject. Pull them fresh and cold out of the fridge and put them into about 1/2 inch of water in a saucepan at med-high heat, rolling boil. Cover, obviously. Put them in there for exactly six minutes and thirty seconds; pop ’em out and run them under cold water for half a minute or more. Crack and peel with the soft puckered fingers of a baby angel. This gentleman got it absolutely right, and it’s the only thing I’ve tried that works every time.)
Writing professionally is sitting down at your word processing device in the morning with the intention of making rent. It’s trying to pay for your fashionable Parisian garret, your two-pots-a-day coffee habit, and all those cloves with that 800 word article about dog shaving you wrote last week for the Indy, which took two weeks to research. It’s squabbling over the exact worth and value of your craft with people who’ll make a lot more money off it than you will, and discovering that (surprise!) these people who’re making money off it don’t think your art is nearly as valuable as you do.
Me? I like the illusion my art is a priceless pearl in the oceans of crude commerce. Do I know it’s an illusion? Oh, yeah. Trust me, I do. But I like it.
So I’m content to halfass. I get that royalty payment, I smile pleasantly, and I go on about my workday. Because I have a job for paying my bills–one that I like fairly well, one that doesn’t keep me stressed out or working at odd hours. I have this low-stress job because my bills are small and my needs are simple, and it gives me time to do what I love doing.
When you want to write professionally, a lot of times what you really want is to look your friends and family in the eyes and say ‘I’m a writer’ when they ask you what you’re up to for work. And that’s awesome. Trust me, I wish I got to do it. I hear it helps you talk to people at bars.
But that isn’t my dream. Am I owed payment, for what I do? My answer, surprisingly, is: no.
Because I’d do it even if I didn’t get paid. In a lot of cases, I do do it even though I don’t get paid. Because not making your dream your profession is a luxury and a blessing, even if there’s some stigma attached to it. It enables you to write what you want when you want to write it.
Mind you, I write every day. Probably somewhere between 1,000 to 5,000 words a day, seven days a week, depending on the time I have and how I’m feeling. If we take a low median average and say I write 1,500 words a day, that makes for 547,500 words a year. It’s probably more than that, but you get my point. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, so I can say I’ve got Heinlein’s (or whoever’s–who did say that first? Ms. Woodward over here did some research, God bless her), million words pretty well covered, several times over.
I’m prolific. I’m clever. And I’m pretty damn good.
Am I a hobbyist? Yes. I don’t pay rent with my writing. But I’m a damn dedicated hobbyist. And I take my little hobby very, very seriously.
And I think, maybe, happiness for a lot of young ‘unsuccessful’ authors lies in a similar place. Don’t worry about other people taking you seriously. That’s, well, always been unproductive. Don’t worry if your resume can list ‘freelance writer’ as an occupation. Should writing be a hobby for you, or a profession? I don’t know. I can’t make that call for you. But I can tell you that, either way, it demands attention and respect.
So stop freaking out about how ‘professional’ you and your ‘author platform’ look. Worry about how good your writing is. Worry about what you’re learning, what you’re gaining, and not whether you deserve to be called an author. Nobody other than you cares about that. Trust me.
And if you can’t pay the bills with writing–and you won’t be able to, at least not at first–find yourself a job. Starving conditions leave your mind awfully full of ways to cook the three hot dogs remaining to you on a piece of tinfoil, and shockingly empty of plot devices and clever synecdoche. If you respect your goddamn art, you won’t do that to it. Writing with no power on is, let me tell you, not the primo environment for ars poetica composition. It’s not the primo environment for much, in fact, except cooking on Sterno cans and going to bed when the sun sets.
Job going to cut into your literary time? Sure it will. Make more time.
Because the illusion that not having a job will allow you to ‘make more time’ for writing is just that–an illusion. Unless you happen to have a patron who believes in you, the alternative is starving, which leaves you about seven days of time before you’re too weak to do shit.
So good luck to all of you. Write well, and don’t waste away while you’re doing it.