It’s a Living: Writing As Work
Yesterday Marie Sexton and I were talking about writing as work. I shared with her my theory born of observation that writers seem to go through some sort of curve of growth, and depending on when and how we sell our first work, we either do this in the dark by ourselves or we do it while we’re trying to maintain a career, but we will do it eventually, one way or another. After a sort of honeymoon period wherein we enjoy writing and do it for the thrill and the high and because we are the lucky chosen ones called upon by the gods or the muses or the secret designs in our office wallpaper–whatever it is, we start writing, and at some point, successful or not, we go, “Wait. This is work.” And at that point we wrestle with what that means to us personally, spiritually, ecumenically, etc., and then we either recommit and forge ahead, or we begin the process of quitting, something which takes anywhere from three seconds to three decades, depending on how much “I should do this” guilt we’ve accumulated. But then maybe some people manage to sustain the honeymoon period indefinitely. It’s entirely possible. All I can tell you is that my honeymoon is long over, I’ve recommitted and doubled down and gotten the tattoo. Writing is my job, and I’m here to do it. That attitude hasn’t changed (much) what I write about, but it does change how I write.
The biggest difference to me in viewing writing as work is that all the sequins have fallen off. Every now and again there is sparkle and glee, and there are definitely fun moments, but there are a lot of times when even opening up the draft and committing to pounding out another thousand words is not unlike my husband dragging himself into work on days he’d rather sit in the chair and do nothing. I think the weirdest revelation for me is that the writing I do on those “I don’t wanna” days is just as good as and sometimes better than the times I sit down and feel I’m communing with gods. Most of the time it truly is about applying butt to chair and getting the words out. There are still the weird bits where I have to play solitaire or take a shower or watch the program my subconscious is suddenly obsessed with, and there is the feeding the muse mystery, but mostly it’s showing up. Getting enough rest and adequate protein. Shutting off the goddamned internet so I don’t lose three hours posting to twitter and refreshing blogs. In fact, my biggest problem is time management: finding the appropriate time to answer emails, do edits, and network and STOPPING when I’ve done enough.
I also, because I have yet to get an answer to my “house boy needed” ad, occasionally need to wash clothing and buy food. And then prepare the food. So annoying.
But perhaps the greatest struggle for me with writing as work is knowing when work ends. Just as I can have trouble actually starting, I can sometimes fail to stop. I’ll be on a roll and want to just “finish this scene” and then I realize it’s 8PM, no one has eaten, and the child is unwashed, has not practiced anything, and needs to do homework. Sometimes I finally get into the right groove and could spend the whole day working, but it’s the only day my husband is off work, and if I want to spend time with him, this is it. It’s always tempting to say, “Work is important,” and sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s even more important to not work.
Overall I feel I am a happier, healthier, and better writer since I landed in the “writing is my job” mindset. If you think about story too hard, it feels insane and impossible and far too magic to be real. I think that’s why the honeymoon period is so important, and why the writing highs occasionally come back, to remind us how we got here. Writing is a weird thing to do, if you think about it too much. But it gives so much beauty and joy to the world. Once you figure out what it is you have to say and how to best say it, it isn’t just work, it’s good work. It’s your work. Every time I get a fan email or at reply on twitter or Facebook of someone saying they loved a book or enjoy my work or anything like that, it’s like a work bonus or praise from a supervisor. It validates me that my job is a good one and is worth doing.
At the end of the day, however, it’s my job. It’s what I do to bring in some extra money. It’s what I chose to do with my time and talents. It’s no longer a calling or an adventure or an epic quest: it’s a living.
And I have to say, I quite like it.