Should Writers Write for a Living?



Writing is how I justify my existence. (Well, that, and trying to raise my daughter to be the best, happiest person she can be, but this isn’t a mommy blog.) I wrote my first stories when I was seven, and except for a few years when my daughter was a baby and I had a six-day-a-week job while working freelance on the side, I’ve never stopped. I have completed five novels, had an agent for a number of years but never did manage to get one of my novels published, and am getting ready to make the leap into self-publishing. When I’m not writing fiction, I’m plotting storylines, fleshing out characters, obsessing over phrases and structure.

So I’m a writer by avocation.

I’m also a writer by vocation.

For years I was a magazine writer/editor. Now I primarily write sales copy for ecommerce sites, with the occasional freelance article for extra cash and to keep my hand in. For at least nine hours every weekday and as many hours every weekend, I’m writing for a living.

But I sometimes wonder if writing the ideal job for a vocational writer.

Years ago I worked in an ice cream parlor, and everyone told me that I’d soon loathe the sight of ice cream. Unfortunately for my waistline and cholesterol levels, that never became the case. The same is true for writing for me. Once I’ve signed off from work for the day, I don’t want to run screaming from my computer. A part of me wants to immediately switch to whatever fictional world I’m creating.

But it’s not always easy to make that mental switch.

Good writing is good writing, right? Well, yes and no.

When writing fiction, I do my best to adhere to the old “show, don’t tell” mantra. And I try to show with a minimum of adjectives and adverbs.

When writing sales copy for the web, especially when your word count is very limited, you’ve got to rely on adjectives and adverbs. You’ve got to shove SEO-friendly verbiage in your first lines. And when writing an article, you’ve got to tell your story straight away, and your syntax and grammar need to be faultless. I’ve also toiled for years as a copyeditor, so I automatically follow up “everybody” with “he or she” rather than the colloquial “they” and shudder when I hear someone say “most unique” or “more perfect.” Shifting from the vocational to avocation mindset is often an effort.

Then there’s the fact that, after pounding out words and phrases for nine hours, a good part of my mind is exhausted. It wants to veg out with a few YouTube clips or a meander through a gossip blog. It wants to play a game of Uno with the family. Once in a while, it even feels obligated to force my lazy body off the futon where it’s been lodged all day so that it can clean the house. 

If my vocation weren’t words—if, say, I worked as a veterinarian or a customer-service rep—I would no doubt still want to veg out at the end of the day. But perhaps, because I hadn’t been crafting sentences all day, I’d see opening up my latest chapter on my desktop more as recreation rather than a continuation of why I’m so mentally knackered to begin with.

And I wouldn’t automatically be using “data” as a plural and typing “which” when my character would incorrectly be using “that.”

Quitting my day job is out of the question. Writing is pretty much the only skill I have, other than making a fabulous noodle kugel and managing to get everything I need for a weeklong vacation into one carry-on bag.

So what I started doing this spring is heading out to a nearby park every morning except the two days each week I have to be to Manhattan for work. I try to get out of the house by seven a.m., so that I can squeeze in nearly two solid hours of fiction writing. I leave the house partly because changing the venue makes it easier for me to change my mindset. Experts say you should never work in your bedroom, because your mind finds it more difficult to associate the room with sleep. That’s never been the case for me—I can fall sleep almost anywhere—but surrounding myself with trees rather than the walls of my house does turn off my brain’s vocational switch and flips on its avocational lever.

Also, I tend to mutter dialogue and even act out scenes when I’m writing. At home, I’m always conscious that my daughter or husband are thudding about and could walk in on me at any time—not to mention the inevitable shouts of “Where are my glasses?” or “Are you going to do laundry today?” The park I go to is relatively unfrequented, and anyway, I don’t really care if a stranger sees me talking to myself.

And by treating myself to a spot of fiction writing before plunging into the work world, I feel like I’m starting the day off right. I’m always in a good mood when I return home at nine a.m. Even if I had to stop short during a complex scene, it gives me something to look forward to tomorrow.

Of course, rain is a bitch. Bounding out of bed, brushing my teeth, my mind sorting out what my characters are going to do next, only to hear it pissing down outside, does make me miserable.

And there is one uncomfortable occupational hazard: mosquito bites. With all the scabs on my arms, legs, and neck from scratching the damn things, I look a bit like a junkie.

Then again, I guess I am a bit of a junkie. Otherwise I wouldn’t be on a park bench, huddled over my laptop in a down coat, fingers numb, on a blustering March morning or swabbing the sweat from my torso with my T-shirt while dodging bees as I peck away outdoors on a sweltering July day.

Do any of you have a similar issue? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

6 comments:

  1. I could commiserate with you for hours on this subject, sister.

    I have been drawing since I was four years old (as of this Saturday, that's 47 years). I draw for fun, for my own amusement. While graphic design is how I make my living, I do very little drawing in my job. The illustration blog that I maintain is purely for my own entertainment and as an outlet for the stuff I really want to do but don't get paid for doing.

    I have been told by many: "Oh, you should publish a book of your drawings", but I have resigned myself to the realization that there are a gazillion people who do what I do. I don't aspire to be rich and famous for my artwork. I am content to sell the occasional illustration, but I rarely pursue the freelance work.

    I had stopped drawing for a while (a few years actually), but once I started again, I looked at it with a new perspective... and I began to really enjoy it again.

    (HERE'S the story of how I was guilted back into drawing.)

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  2. You're very diligent with your drawings and blog, though—which I love, btw. (http://blog.marshotelonline.com/) But how the hell did you get to be one year older than me?

    Even in middle age, I still find it hard to accept that not all my childhood and adolescent dreams are going to come true. Which I guess is why I'm going the self-publication route.

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  4. Re writing non-fiction for a living and living for fiction: I think it's a perfect combination. The two are so different, a bit like comparing ping-pong to tennis, p-p being non-fiction. Maybe baseball and softball are better analogies, because you need to be athletic to succeed at both. Athletes are always in training, practicing their craft, and staying fit. I think writers need to do the same. If a guitarist plays rock music for a living but flamenco, jazz, or blues for fun (and the occasional gig), or is a session musician for a living, would it seem odd that s/he is always playing guitar? I don't think so. Same with writing.

    Re middle age and lifelong dreams: THAT is a much more convoluted subject, about which many novels have already been written and many more are sure to come. Rather than responding to the aging aspects of it (which can be a red herring), I'll address the project management side. I currently have about a dozen writing projects I would like to complete before I die (assuming that's not any time soon, whatever "soon" means). Some of these I've been living with for over two decades, most about 10 - 15 years, and one or two only a year or three. I have folders, file cases, and in one case an entire filing cabinet full of clippings, notes, etc., and many shelves of books for "research." (The quotes are because others chide me for building up a research library, which seems as natural as breathing to me...but not to them.) And this research is not just for the non-fiction; in fact, it's mostly for the fiction, as background for settings, scenes, etc. (not for "historical fiction" but for historical settings.)

    Anyway, I feel like I am making progress on all of these projects, but have only written "notes" (quite extensively in many cases) for most of them. The one I completed was ironically the most recent one, and it turned out to be a play. I've gotten feedback on it and have a lot of rewriting to do, which I'll probably finish by the end of the year.

    All that said, I could be (a) a miserable miscreant for having neglected virtually all of my writing projects for so many years (in the sense that research doesn't count, only writing does), (b) a callow dilettante with a major a case of denial, or (c) a striver in the manner of Sisyphus (who was punished for his trickery, by the way). But I'm not any of those exactly (with the tiniest pinch of all three). I feel more like a "late bloomer." I honestly don't think I was "ready" to conquer any of those projects until now. And some of them I may never get to, so it's a matter of prioritizing what I know I will most want to complete in the next few years.

    Which is a long-winded way of saying the dreams of youth are just that -- so let go, and what you do starting NOW is all that really matters. To paraphrase one of the characters in my play, the End of the Rainbow isn't a place, it's learning how to move on.

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  5. Ernie, I had no idea you wrote fiction! Can't wait to read some of your work.

    And as for the lifelong dreams bit, have you ever heard "April Fool" by Ronnie Lane? One of the most beautiful, and saddest, songs of adult realization/resignation ever: "I take my dreams to bed now/where they belong." Gets me every time.

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  6. And I didn't know you make noodle kugel -- one of my favorites! Hope I get to taste it sometime!

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