Speaking the Truth About the Writing Life

The Truth About the Writing Life

I see an awful lot of misconceptions about the writing life out there. Usually these come up when someone expresses some version of the, “You’re so lucky. You get to do whatever you want. It must be so relaxing to be a writer and just hang out at home all day.” Yeah, nope. It’s time to pull back the curtain and share the truth about the writing life.

I’m not telling you these things to dissuade you from your dreams of writing. If you want to be a writer, there are lots of great things about it. What people forget sometimes, though, is that it is a job. And just like any other job, there are parts that are not so great. (The saying goes something like all jobs are some type of shit sandwich. The key to success is deciding which flavor of shit you prefer. I think that’s true. Every job has some crappy parts, but those parts fade when you enjoy most of the work.)

Plus, there are a lot of stereotypes out there about our personalities that lead people to think things like, “Well, if I’m not an introvert, I can’t make it as a writer.” Most of these aren’t true. Writing is one of the few professions that can be open to almost anyone who’s willing to learn the craft. You don’t have to be particularly gifted, of a certain psychological bent, or physically shaped in some specific way.

So let’s tackle some misconceptions!

We’re not all rich. I’ve talked about this before, but let me repeat it. Many writers are not rich. Yes, some rise to the level of Stephen King or Nora Roberts, but most of us make very little money. Most of us have to keep our day jobs. (Particularly in the U.S. where health insurance worries are real.) Writing is not generally a profession that pays well, and it seems to be becoming less so every year. Even freelancing and corporate work don’t pay what they used to because businesses are farming the work out to the lowest bidders on sides like Fiverr.

We don’t spend all day in our pajamas. This one comes up whenever any sort of work from home job is discussed. People assume it must be great to not have to get primped and dressed every day. Most writers, though, get dressed. As noted above, most of us still have to go to a real job. And those of us who don’t often have other things to do during the day that require being seen. (Even if only from the chest up on Skype.) Maybe we don’t have to wear a suit, but neither can we sit around in a nightshirt all day.

We don’t work for just a couple of hours here and there. Writing is just like anything else. You don’t become successful by dabbling at it. Full-time writers work full time. That often means 8+ hours a day, just like any other worker. Even those who have other jobs often put in several hours a day at the keyboard, and that’s on top of other things like housework and child care. In other words, writers write because they love it enough to devote (and find) the time.

We don’t get to make everything up. Writers don’t just pull stuff out of thin air all day. We don’t just daydream our work into existence. Research is real, even for fiction. We have to put in the hours to make our stories authentic. Even writers of opinion pieces and editorials need to research, otherwise their opinions come across as uninformed.

We don’t live in a fantasy world. As with the above, we don’t spend all day daydreaming and living with make believe characters in fantasy worlds. Sure, some of our time is spent that way. But more of our time is spent on other activities like marketing, paying bills, looking for new opportunities, research, and all the other activities that make a writing career “go.” It’s not all clouds and rainbows.

We’re not all crazy hermits. There’s a belief that writers are all introverts. Possibly crazy introverts, at that. We can thank a few well known cases of mental illness for that stereotype. True, many writers are introverted. But not all. There are many writers who love to socialize and who use it as fuel for their work/networking. And while there are depressed or other mentally ill writers, there are plenty who are not. Being an introvert or having a mental illness are not prerequisites for a writing career. Don’t assume that every writer you meet is either of these things.

Some of us hate coffee. And many of us aren’t booze hounds, either. I’ll confess: I hate coffee. I like my caffeine with fizzy bubbles, aka soda. I don’t like booze, either. Not all writers are coffee addicts or alcoholics. Many of us don’t get joy from hanging out in coffee shops, either. Too noisy and distracting. So, please. When thinking of gifts, don’t give a writer a gift card to Starbucks or a bottle of Jim Beam unless you know the writer enjoys these things.

Writer’s block isn’t a thing for many of us. Many working writers do not spend hours bellyaching about writers block. Why? Because they’re too busy writing. They know that “block” is code for procrastination and they choose instead to get on with the work. Trying to engage these writers in a whine-fest about blockages will earn you the stink-eye.

Authors know everyone else in publishing. A published author does not automatically know everyone else in publishing. They can’t put you in touch with your favorite author, or hook you up with an A-list agent. We can’t force another author to blurb your book, either. Also…

We can’t get your book published. Related to the above, a published author probably can’t help you get your work published. They may not know the right people for your work, but more likely it comes down to not wanting to put their neck on the line for someone they don’t know. That plus it would require time to read your work; time the author doesn’t have. (And that doesn’t take into account the legal reasons that most authors won’t read unpublished work.) Besides, there are very few authors who can make a recommendation to an agent or publisher and have it taken seriously.

We can’t teach you how to write. Some writers are teachers. Most are not. Asking a writer to teach you how to write is like asking a veterinarian to teach you how to do surgery on your dog. He might be able to do it, but there are probably other people far more qualified. Teaching requires both time and an ability to convey material effectively. Many writers just can’t do that. Neither can people in most professions. Many people know how to do something, but they fail at teaching others how to do that thing. I know how to do a double axel, but I can’t teach you how to do it. Don’t ask a writer to teach you unless that writer offers teaching as a service. You’ll be far better off finding a night class or private tutor.

There’s no schedule in the writing life. While it’s true that there likely isn’t a schedule when you’re unpublished, once you’re published there absolutely is a schedule. There are deadlines for new books. Deadlines for associated things like promotional blog posts and images. You may get to choose the hours you work, but it’s not a freeform life. Freelancing is even more structured. Your clients work 9-5? So do you because that’s when they’ll call or email you needing things. Oh, and they have deadlines, too,

We’re immune to office politics. While it’s true that we don’t have to kiss up as much as those in the corporate world, we do have to keep our heads down and out of the fray. We aren’t free to badmouth clients, much as we may sometimes want to go off on the terrible ones. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do to get ahead or get a referral. And if you’re writing books and on social media? There are trolls to dodge and every post has to be carefully moderated lest it offend someone. Publishers, agents, clients, fans, etc. all require careful handling if you want to keep your career on track. We don’t get to just say, “Screw it,” and act with impunity.

There are more misconceptions about the writing life, I’m sure. Some people claim we never shower, or that we’re all chain-smoking cat hoarders. (Personally, I’m a dog person.) But the list above are the untruths I see regularly. I’m not even sure that they’re untruths as much as they’re fantasies cooked up by people who hate their regular jobs and see writing as a mythical promised land of unicorns and rainbows. Whatever the case, the truth about the writing life is often less appealing than the fantasy. And you can say that about almost any occupation.

(Photo by Leighann Renee)

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