Monday, August 11, 2014

To Write or Not to Write

Question: Did you ever have any doubts about your decision to be a writer?”

“So, did you ever have any doubts about the wisdom of turning your back on a regular, automatic deposit into your bank account that represented your seniority and expertise in your career in favor of no income, no experience, and absolutely no recognition in a field made up of mostly striving, ill paid, and under-valued creative types?”

What a silly question – of course not!

Did I ever have doubts about the timing of my leap into the unknown? Sure. Did I worry that I might run out of savings? You bet – did and do. Did I fear that, as someone who had never published a word of fiction, I might fail to break into the market? Every time I let myself go down that road. But I started with one comforting fact: I was a writer already.

Writers may not be born, but I do think they’re shaped by childhoods spent reading, fantasizing, listening, playing a lot of “what if?” games and practicing every chance they get. By the time I started looking for a real job, I was already a writer, a shameless hunter for opportunities to see my work in print. Grade school was easy – there wasn’t much competition for someone as determined as I was to be highlighted on the blackboard, in mimeographed sheets, in writing assignments, where I was always singled out for praise suitable for a 10-year old: “Excellent imagination!”

High school may have ramped up the stakes, but I was editor of the yearbook, feature editor of the newspaper, an occasional Voice of the Teenager columnist for the local newspaper. I was like a vampire looking for fresh blood.

When I began to work for money, I wrote for throw-away newspapers, then for real newspapers, then for national magazines. Then, I became an editor. I wrote op-eds and celebrity interviews, covered city council meetings, and did features on alternative medicine and the craze for home brewed beer, and the local horse racing industry. I could – and can – write 600-1,200 words about ANYTHING.

Today, the questions I hear from writers aren’t so much about whether or not they have the talent and drive to become published – after all, they are my tribe, have the same backgrounds as I do – it’s whether or not they can make a decent living from it, can feed kids and put them through college, can pay the PG&E bill. That’s a serious question in today’s rapidly changing marketplace for books, and the answer for most of us is not encouraging. Like the music industry, this corner of the creative world is being fragmented into slices of “product,” with a large proportion of shoppers who demand ever-increasing bargains and are prepared to sacrifice quality for price, deeper satisfaction for the momentary sensory hit.

I’m still a newcomer with two books out, plus one purchased and in production, and a brand new one out to beta readers before going to my agent. Others on Criminal Minds are major successes and have found large and appreciative audiences for their terrific work. Some teach, some work in related writing industries. A few excellent writers I know have supporting spouses so the financial question isn’t a biggie, but lots of other deal with logistical anxieties on a daily basis.

The real question, from where I sit, isn’t about doubting one’s ambition, drive, or ability to “be a writer.” The real question is “Can I structure a life that allows me to use my talents as a writer?” And the real answer is, yes, you can. Never doubt that you can build your hunger to write into your life. Then, see where it takes you.


Paul D. Marks said...

Susan, you hit the nail, or at least one of the nails, on the head when you ask if one can make a decent living as a writer today. It's probably always been hard to do that, but harder today. I always like to bring up the fact that in the mid 20th century people could actually make a living selling short stories. That's like an alternate universe now. And most of the writers I know have to supplement their writing income with a "day job". But they do it/the writing because they have to -- it's inside of them.

Meredith Cole said...

What a great story, Susan! I totally agree... A writer is something you are (whether or not you make a living at it). Of course, making money on it is pretty fantastic, too...

Susan C Shea said...

Paul and Meredith, I don't see big changes in the financial picture for authors generally, do you? But I look at some crime fiction writers who work hard, have hit a vein with their storytelling, and are making money - enough to set their day jobs aside without moving to a garret! Their success keeps me going!