Writing Tuesday’s post made me do some math, and the result of that was: it has been almost ten years since I completed my first manuscript.
The actual decade mark will come sometime early next year, but it’s close enough. I remember it quite well, because in the spring of 2006 I was finishing up my master’s thesis and wondering how I would fill a year before going into PhD work.
Eight months later I burned all my PhD applications and watched the ashes flutter away in the January wind.
Since then I have not had a ‘real’ job. I’ve worked temporary part-time stuff, but nothing that you can tell people when they turn to you at a party and ask the dreaded question: “And what do you do?” I’ve been writing.
Here are some things I’ve learned in the last almost-decade:
1. There is no validation. Do not expect the easy win. In some ways, doing this is worse than a day job, because at least there someone can tell you if you’re doing it right. Artists are all pitching words or images or songs into the void and hoping something comes back. It is not for the faint of heart.
2. This is a long con. Be prepared for the long haul. This road runs into the desert, and there’s no proof it ever comes out again. Take water and sunscreen and a machete, because you’re going to be out there a while.
3. People don’t get it. Maybe art is something they don’t understand or something they wish they had done or something they feel is morally wrong, but, man, a lot of people do not fucking get it. Tell them you’re an artist and if you’re lucky you’ll get a blank stare. If you’re not…
4. It makes some people angry. On the upside, these people usually act like complete assholes, so you can safely ignore them while they flail around with their judgmental snark and passive-aggressive comments. It’s about them, not you.
5. Even work you love can be hard. There will be days when you want to punch yourself in the brain to make all the words fall out.
6. If it takes more than it gives, then you’re probably in the wrong job. All jobs take, and creative jobs are no exception. The only difference is what they take. In my case, writing has taken my time, my mental energy, my personal financial security, my independence, my other ambitions. It gives me joy, entertainment, freedom, and purpose. If you’re not getting more than you’re sacrificing, according to your own idiosyncratic math, then you’re doing the wrong thing. Actually, I guess that applies to all jobs.
7. You’ll work harder at this than any other job you’ve ever had. A couple of years back I had to put myself on a regular schedule, because I was spending almost eighty hours a week working on writing and was on the verge of burning out altogether. Even now, I work about fifty. That includes writing, outlining, editing, researching markets, sending out submissions…there’s a lot of unseen work that goes into producing art. And you usually don’t get paid for it. Be prepared for that.
8. It makes you a different person. Not a better person, note. Just different. I am not the same person I would have been if I had gone on to do my PhD. Or gone into teaching. Or done anything else. I look at the world in different ways. Sometimes they’re good ways. Sometimes I’m mining personal tragedy for story fodder.
9. You’ll want to quit. At least once. More likely thousands of times. Sometimes all in one day.
10. There is no rush like creation. When everything’s clicking over just right and all your hard work is coming together, you’ll fly. And you’ll never want to come back down.