A Writer’s Real Job

Real Job

“So you want to be a writer, do you?” His eyes narrowed as he chuckled and I suddenly felt like I had two purple heads. “And what exactly are you going to do for your real job?”

Even with self-publishing making it possible for anyone on the planet to become a published writer, this attitude that writing (unless you just sold the movie rights to your bestselling novel and bought a new Ferrari) is somehow a pastime that people indulge in when they’re not spending their time accomplishing something useful like diagnosing a disease or making copious notes at Monday morning’s marketing meeting, even though the PowerPoint will be emailed to you later in the day…this attitude persists today much like it did 30 years ago.

It’s a lethal attitude. It’s killed countless creative efforts and pulled the rug out from under aspiring writers for as long as there have been aspiring writers.

It’s not always as blatant as in the example above; in fact, most of the time, it’s subtle, but always there, lurking under the surface of your interactions with the people around you.

“Can you pick Sheila up at the airport?”
“This is my writing time…remember the schedule? And I’m finally on a roll with Chapter 7. Can you pick her up?”
“I have to pick up the party favors for next weekend.”

“Pick them up tomorrow.”

“But I just want to get that out of the way. You can work on Chapter 9 tomorrow.”

Been in this situation before? You’ve scheduled your writing so that it’s not just a random thing you do whenever the creative juices bubble up. It’s something you take seriously and it’s probably more important to you than the job that helps pay for the party favors.

Part of the problem is that painfully long gap between starting a novel, finishing it and getting it published…if it ever gets published. It’s the immediate return on invested time and money. For instance, a plumber repairs your leaky sink and gets paid, all in a matter of hours. You go to the office, sit around for eight hours and collect a paycheck two weeks later. For most people, work has definite start and end dates with something accomplished (repaired sink, sore butt) for which there is a definite payment. You can schedule the start, end and reward.

Not always so in the arts world; in fact, rarely so. You might spend a few months or a few years writing a novel and, unless you’ve made a deal with a publisher, you’re not being paid while you’re writing and, if it’s your first novel, you haven’t established yourself as a professional writer. So most people will perceive your writing as a hobby…not as something to which you want to devote your life. And the longer it takes you to write your novel, the less likely they’ll take it seriously: they’ll see it as your little dream, that quirky little thing you do in the background of your life while you in your keep from the real job selling cars or insurance.

This attitude can be devastating, especially during those times when you’re having doubts and feeling the angst of doing something for ages that’s moving forward slowly but: “who’s going to read it?” “do I really have anything important to say?” “what the hell am I doing?”

That kind of stuff. It can kill you as a writer. I’ve had five novels published and tons of short stories, but I still have these feelings, these doubts that what I’m doing is even worth the effort. Fortunately, I expect the negative thoughts and I keep writing at the scheduled times (yes, I schedule my writing because, like my fulltime job, it’s work).

I’m not saying there won’t be those moments of pure joy when you read something you wrote the night before and you’re floored by the idea that you, yes you, wrote these beautiful words. Those moments are worth the fear and loathing of a thousand moments of doubt. But the novel isn’t finished. You’re halfway through and you’ve been working on it for over a year. You have another year to go, maybe longer.

I try to alleviate the uncertainty by storyboarding my novels before I start the writing, but once I’m 30 or 40 pages into it, the characters and story take off and the storyboard evaporates in the heat of the writing. But the structure and direction it initially provides carries me through. A diver is more likely to dive successfully from a solid board than a rubber one.

Not everyone is into storyboarding, and I get it…it’s work and you might not know where the story is going until you start writing. This happens to me with my short fiction. But storyboard or not, it’s a long process and it eats a lot of time and requires daily sacrifices. So much of writing is discouraging and, if you’re like most of the writers I know, you’re not going to get the kind of support you really need: acknowledgment that your writing is just as valuable as anything else you do, and maybe even more so.

It’s not just a hobby. It’s not just a distraction from the real stuff. It’s what you are and what you want to be.

It means putting things in a writer’s perspective. For instance, would you take time off the 9 to 5 job to pick Sheila up at the airport? If not, why would you take time off from your scheduled writing? You might say, “Well, I have more flexibility with my own time.”

“My own time”?

That attitude has turned many a promising word smith into dissatisfied retiree with a lot of regrets. I know some of these people. They still talk about that novel they should have written and maybe, when they have some free time in their post-retirement life, they’ll get around to it.

Your own time is when you write…when you’re who and what you are.

When people don’t take your writing seriously, feel free to take those people and whatever they do with a grain of salt. Better yet, avoid them. Unless you have no choice but to interact with them, just stay clear of them. Treat them as toxic chemicals. If you’re stuck with them, don’t talk about your writing. They don’t deserve to hear about it.

Resolve that you will be spending much of your time alone, even when you’re in a crowded area like I am when I write in coffee shops. While others are gliding through their mundane lives, you’re creating new worlds, birthing personalities that grow and evolve, focusing on those little things that everyone misses until they read about them in your novel and think, “Oh yeah…that.”

That’s your real job.

 

(BTW…don’t miss the first episode of the world’s first free daily serialized coffee break novel, The Weekly Man, coming September 8.)