On the Writing Life: A Tangent

Most of my life, I’ve focused on being a writer. Since I was a teenager, I’ve wanted to write science fiction and fantasy. And then I struck very early success with playwriting, and that became a part of the dream, too.

All I’ve ever wanted was to be a writer. And I’m realizing, that was too narrow a focus.

Please pardon the tangent, I know this isn’t like the rest of my blog. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Almost obsessively, you could say. And in that way, it kinda fits.

I ran into a writer friend last night and he asked me how it was working as a writer, and I told him it was great. Which it is. And then he asked, well, what about your writing? And it gave me pause.

I told him that I’m not doing much writing outside of work, and he got this incredibly pitying look on his face. He told me that I was out of the game. Which seemed…. flat out ridiculous.

But he was serious. He told me it would hurt my career. That I was devoting myself too much to my job. That it made him sad. That, while the writing I do at my job will be read by thousands more than anything I could publish (even were I a best seller), and even though I am making a living from it, I was out of the game. Because it meant I wasn’t doing my own writing. I was working in someone else’s universe.

Let’s take a moment here and think about that.

I am making a living as a writer. I am making a living as a science fiction and fantasy writer. When I go to work, I get to write what I love. I get to create characters and backstories and storylines and I get to write dialogue. And I get to bounce ideas off of brilliant creative people. And I get to do all of this writing in a rich, and much beloved, fantasy world. One that I’ve been in love with since I was a kid. In what way is this not living the dream? I make enough money to pay the bills and live comfortably, from writing I love. Isn’t this pretty much the goal? Isn’t this what I’ve been working towards all my life?

I tried to explain to him that no, I was actually pretty happy. That I was doing what I wanted to be doing. The pitying look never really left his face.

And I realize, looking back, that I used to feel the way he did. That writing novels was the thing. The only thing. That there was only one true way to be a success as a writer. And, also, that somehow anyone who took a day job that stopped them from writing that way, was selling out. It was a disappointment. I remember this kind of thinking in academia, too. Whenever someone left teaching at the University to take a job teaching at a JC or, gods forbid, a high school, it was like someone had died. They’d given up the calling for money. As if teaching elsewhere wasn’t as good. As if there’s something wrong with wanting to get paid for your work.

Chris Guillebeau has an interesting post about the relationship between art and money, how we seem to expect people not to make money off of art, as if that cheapens it. As if artists are supposed to starve. As if writers are meant to crimp and save and die of dysentery.

That’s bullshit.

Writers deserve to have lives just as much as anyone else. Artists deserve to make money for the work they do that finds an audience. It’s no different from any other home business or entrepeneurship. If you can produce something people want, and if you can find enough people who want it that you can make a living – more power to you.

Lois McMaster Bujold, one of my favoritest writers ever, makes a living off her writing. And guess what, that enables her to…. oh my goodness gracious…. write more. So that I, and other people like me, get to read more. And you know what? I’m okay with that. I wish more of my favorite writers could do that, because then I’d have more good books to read.

The thing is, if you aren’t making a living… you probably are going to have to stop whatever you’re doing and find something else. Because money does matter. Because shelter and food are big deals. Because healthcare is kinda nifty. Because you can’t very well have kids and then do right by them if you can’t support them. Because you should not be a financial drain on all of the people who care about you. Because you will do a better job, and be a better person, if you’re not always exhausted and freaking out about making ends meet. Because the people around you deserve that better person, and you know what else? You deserve to be that better person, too.

This isn’t to say you need to give up your dreams. But that maybe, there are other, better dreams than simply – I want to be a writer. They can be concurrent dreams. They can be complementary dreams. But you should have other dreams and other goals than just simply being a writer. And you should understand, as well, what “being a writer” entails. You should know what anything entails before you decide to devote your life to it. Nuns, they know the deal before they sign on. It’s not like they get to the convent and they’re suddenly saying, “Wait a minute? You mean I can’t have my boyfriend stay the night? And wait, what?! No sex? Dude!”

Which is not to say writers are nuns.

But. I bought into the idea that the only way to be a writer was to do it on your own, for love, not money, and that magically, after you did that, someone would come along and decide to pay you for it. But that doesn’t happen all that often. Making a living as a writer is hard. And I’ve written about that before, over at my livejournal. So I won’t repeat it here.

And that way of thinking was why I kept teaching for so long, even though it was driving me into debt and destroying my health. Because it was noble. And I ought to be doing it for the love of it. And, because it was respectable. High status. And that let me feel good about the fact that I hadn’t succeeded. That, in fact, I was hiding from life and not taking risks. That let me look down upon and, yes, pity people who had taken risks and realized they deserved more. It was just a patch for my own insecurity.

I’ve got the job, now. I’m making a living. I’m doing good work. I’m getting better at what I do. It’s time, more than time, to find other goals in my life. Because what is the point if all my energy and self worth is focused solely on writing? If there is nothing else in my life, it will have been a waste.

If I want to become an expert on ant hills, I should do that. If I want to keep bees in my backyard and have my own honey, I should do that, too. (I won’t, because I’m terrified of bees, but whatever. You get the point).

I don’t know yet what I want. I’ve never known, aside from the writing. But that’s a kind of cop out. That’s a way of hiding from life, and from other people. And from the responsibility to take care of yourself and be a full person.

So I’ve been baking and inviting friends over. And I’ve been trying to take care of my health. And I’ve been writing this blog. And I’ve been more loving towards my boyfriend. And I’ve begun cultivating my own garden. How very Voltaire of me.

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