A touchy subject: How writers make their livings

English sun dial (credit: Chris Shaw)

English sun dial (credit: Chris Shaw)

 

Ten years. That’s how long I think Susanna Clarke spent on writing her alternative history of English magic, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  I used to think, ” ‘Swounds, ten years? How is that possible?!”  Yes, it’s a very big book, easy to mistake for an old phone book, but ten years?

Now, as the days creep by and I see myself on Year Seven (or eight, I’ve lost track) on my own book, I’m really not so surprised anymore.

Every writer’s growth and evolution is different. For some, it happens quickly; others, like myself, procrastinate on other things before finally deciding to stop wasting time. In my case, I spent too many days — and too many good brain cells– chasing after other people’s books as a part of my job.

My waking-up moment happened when I was still at The Times, digging through a pile of Da Vinci Code clones for a piece on how easy it was to have a religio-conspiracy thriller published thanks to Dan Brown. I thought, “I can do this!”  And then, “I must do this!”

In the years since I’ve watched my book grow away from that impulse and change, just as I have … there have been months of good work, of planning and creating. Then a family emergency or deadline of some kind will intervene. All the work stops for months until the healing’s done and you’re ready  to pick up the skein again. Time passes.

As I near the finish of another revision, I just read Ann Bauer’s Salon piece “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from.” If this is a topic that you’re interested in, the article is worth reading and is definitely for you.

 

salon ann bauer

 

I like the article — Bauer’s insightful, and I appreciate her honesty about the whole situation — but I also hope it’s the last one that any media outlet ever gives attention to.  Why?  I think we finally have to stop torturing ourselves and asking questions about every successful writer’s personal circumstances. That’s an easy question to ask, especially when you’re young.  You’re starting out and you don’t know anything.  It’s natural to ask for someone else’s advice and personal circumstances, especially when they’re at the top of the pyramid.

But it’s all beside the point.  It leads to a bunch of fuming, upset working writers — like the ones in the thread of that Salon item — who are thinking a little too much of the “how” instead of the “why.” (Ok, cue up New Agey, mystical music now)   The most important question you should answer is “why do I write?” That’s where your energy should be located.  Envy is a bad thing, especially for a writer. It sucks away all the passion that’s better spent on the page.

For myself, I’ve realized that my dear novel, my precious “litel bok,” and its journey through three revisions — and plenty of rejections — has been a friend to me over the past 7 (or 8) years.

I’m totally blessed — blessed with the best family and friends — but my novel, A Walker in the Evening, has been a special blessing — a companion at those times after, let’s say, a funeral when I was tired of talking and tired of thanking everyone for their consolation.  Then, I’d go off and  find a pocket of time when the family was in bed, and walk around with my narrator in his little village on the edges of Eastern Europe. There was nothing else so healing. I’ve felt immensely lucky.

I wonder what would’ve helped me if some publisher had bought the earlier version of the manuscript years ago and it quickly disappeared into thrift stores and secondhand bookshops. It’s something I don’t like to think about too much.

The same is also true of the end of this work, which is coming. I feel it this time. Feel it in my bones. And, to be perfectly honest, my best beloveds,  I don’t like it. It’s an amazing reversal from my attitude years ago. This may seem effing crazy, but I think I’m actually going to feel sad when it’s all over.

Ten years? Ten years is nothing.

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9 responses

  1. Mostly, we don’t – make a living that is. I’ve traded money for time for so long I don’t even know what making a living means. I’m still living. There’s that. And I’ve been working on the same book, through, now, the third revision, and fourth and fifth if you include the backstory that sent me on this mythical journey nearly thirty years ago and which I tried to write twice. Ah well. I understand what you mean. Life happens. And I still believe in the story (it’s may be the only one I have) and I’m still glad none of the other versions were published. Well. Maybe that first ever Mexico book. It didn’t get published but it’s sure a good record of those years. I am so looking forward to your book. If you need a reader, just ask.

  2. I’m still living too, Janet. Haha. That’s a great line. It’s an honor to have your insights at Call. Thank you. And thank you for the offer to read Walker: when I feel like the egg’s ready to hatch, I’ll definitely take you up on that!

  3. Well, I’ve about resolved the issue of money and writing for myself, and it’s the process of writing that’s done it. For some time, I imagined that having great chunks of time to write — like maybe six months, free and clear — would be necessary ever to turn out a book.

    I just finished a series on my blog that presented an interesting thought. Three parts, seven thousand words, all done while still working, petting the cat, getting new tires, and so on. I couldn’t even imagine seven thousand words when I started, and yet I did it: not for the sake of the word count, but because that many words were necessary. (And believe me — had I not edited the *** out of those pieces, they would have run to ten thousand words. But of course, the series wouldn’t have been as good.)

    The point is, I’ve come to believe that, were I to desire to write a book, there’s no reason I can’t do it in the midst of my life as it is. That’s rather freeing. I’ve begun to think there’s a creative analog to the old “Eat to live, don’t live to eat” aphorism. It might go: “Getting paid for writing is great. Writing only to get paid is far less satisfying.”

    Six years ago, I said I started my blog to learn to write. Now, my task may be shifting. I’ve begun to think that the new challenge is to use my blog to learn to write a book. (Easier with non-fiction than fiction, perhaps.)

    And if I have to be my own sponsor? So be it. On the other hand, think of the freedom that allows!

  4. I look forward to watching your progress on your new task, shoreacres.

    I think I’m (finally) understanding how writing is integrated with the rest of life, not something separate. It’s taken a long time to learn that lesson, but I feel now like I have a gem that no one can take away from me.

  5. I enjoyed reading this. I didn’t consider “Why I write” until I read snatches of Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.”

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