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February 02, 2004

My So-Called Writing Life

Over at Making Light, Teresa Nielsen Hayden discourses on literary rejection and why writers take rejection badly (reason: The editors are rejecting our babies! Waaaaaah!). In the comment thread, Charlie Stross makes a cogent observation, excerpted here:

It's an issue of self-identity. People who write think of themselves as being writers; thus, to have their writing rejected is to question an aspect of their identity.

In these cases, it's an aspect of their identity that needs to be questioned. "Being a writer" is about receiving rejection letters, shrugging, filing them, and going on. "Being a writer" is about walking a tightrope strung between the twin pillars of what-the-readers-want and what-I-want-to-say, above the abyss of obscurity. "Being a writer" is frequently a tedious, exhausting, isolating, financially insecure existence...

The whole issue of why so many people harbour romantic misconceptions about the literary lifestyle is one that needs to be examined if we're to understand why so many people respond badly to rejection letters. And here I think other writers are partially to blame, for in all too many fictions about writers we see them presented as free, and wealthy, and fulfilled ...

It's true enough that when I tell people I'm a writer, they get the impression I spend most of my time slacking off, except for the 15 or so minutes a day where I vomit out prose in a gout. And of course it's not true. There's actual work involved. It's not back-breaking work or work that's in any way physically strenuous, but it's work nonetheless.

I think I'm a good example of a professional freelance writer -- I write a lot of stuff, I write a lot of different stuff, and it's my day job. And I'm reasonably successful, at least financially (i.e., I don't have to do anything else to pay my bills), although I am by no means rich. So, here's how I live my romantic writing life:

1. Sometime usually between 7:30 and 8am, I go into my home office, pictured here:

2. Then I sit down in the above-pictured chair and look at a screen that usually looks like this:

3. And then I look like this:

as I type away until Krissy and Athena get home, which is about 6pm. I do take breaks to do other stuff, like eat and poo and talk on the phone, but most of the time, I'm all about the typing with a neutral expression on my face.

4. Unless I'm on a deadline, in which case I'm apt to look like this:

5. Repeat process Mon-Fri, and maybe a little on the weekend as well.

Isn't that romantic?

I see two objections here. The first it the practical one: at least you work from home. Well, this is true. On the other hand, people who don't work at home idealize the working from home scenario. To highlight one big drawback, allow me to present you my conversational partner for most of the working day:

I love my dog, and she loves me in that doggy way of hers, but let's just say she's not going to hold forth on a number of topics I will find fascinating. I've been in a home situation and I've been in an office situation, and while I'm in no rush to get back into an office, I absolutely do miss the stimulation of having people near you, to bounce ideas off of, or just to go and get lunch with. I mean, I just had lunch: Two microwaved burritos that I ate while I was typing this. Isolation does not always rock.

The second objection is: But at least you're published. And again, that's true. In four years I've written or contributed to these books:

And this picture doesn't include Old Man's War, which comes out this year just in time for the holidays (hint, hint). I should also have at least a couple other books to which I've contributed coming out this year as well. On the other hand, look at all these books I didn't write:

And not only didn't I write these, but several of these books compete directly with something I've written. The book market is huge, which is both a blessing and a curse, since the maw must be fed (which means I can reasonably expect to sell more books barring a catastrophic loss of ability) but it's also incredibly easy to get lost and have your work disappear without someone noticing it was ever there. There's nothing romantic about your book being on the remainder table.

(and all of the above neglects to mention my other non-book writing, which is available for a limited time -- in the case of my magazine and newspaper work -- or for which I get no authorial credit (my business writing)).

And like I said: This is the life of a successful freelance writer. I'm not even bringing up the usual utterly non-romantic writer plagues of underemployment, genteel poverty (and sometimes it's not-so-genteel) and begging people who are supposed to pay you a pitiful pittance to actually spit up the dough, already. And then of course there is rejection of your work, which for a writer is both constant and random -- constant because it happens to every writer, and random because often there's no apparent good reason for it. Any writer who has had a piece rejected one place and accepted another knows how capricious rejection can be.

It's nice to be able to say I'm a writer -- it's what I've always wanted to be and it's what I'm good at. And yes, it has perks: People assume you're smart (which is not always the case) and sometimes people even find it attractive -- I got a girlfriend in college because she really liked my writing in the newspaper and figured I might be a worthy catch (was I? That's another story entirely). And I wouldn't want to do anything else.

But it's not a romantic life. I suppose some writers do have a romantic life, but most of the writers I know worry about the same things everyone else does, have their mortgages or rent to pay, kids to raise, spouses and friends to cherish and basically a whole damn life to get through like all the rest of y'all. It's a good life, or at least it's been a good life for me. But it is a real life.

Posted by john at February 2, 2004 12:41 PM

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