Jim Houston’s Advice

Jim Houston’s Advice

There was a really dumb article over at Salon the other day about the heartbreak of being a midlist writer. The anonymous author is being duly spanked this morning in the letters for her whininess, and for the amounts of money she’s made over the past few years, which hardly seem to qualify her at all as midlist.

Among the many, many things that annoyed me about this article, the one that hit closest to home is the idea that having a day job and being a “real” writer are mutually exclusive. I’ve seen this falsely romantic idea consign so many talented people to such poverty, or to the unending grind of adjunct teaching, or even to the unending grind of the holy grail — the tenure-track job, that they quit writing altogether. Or their writing gets skewed by the need to please a tenure committee, which is a different issue altogether, one akin to the two-book-deal problem (where you owe a book you haven’t written to an editor who has the power to reject it).

Anyhow, the work/writing issue. The summer between my first and second years at UC Davis, I was working the Art of the Wild conference up at Squaw Valley and I had a consultation with Jim Houston. He read my first chapter, and gave me the best advice I’ve ever had: “It’s a real book,” he said in his deep, dad-ly baritone. “Now you just have to figure out how to arrange your life so you can write it.” So for the next five years, that was my goal — it’s the reason I applied for the doctoral program at Utah, it’s the reason I took whole quarters off from my coursework, it was my guiding principle. How could I build a life that would allow me to write that book?

So, when I was finishing what I think of as that infernal PhD, and I was not in a good place, I had to decide how to arrange my life next. I had a finished novel manuscript that my thesis committee hated (neither postmodern nor experimental enough). I didn’t have an agent. I wasn’t published and because I had no mentor on my committee I knew my chances of getting anything other than a crappy adjunct position somewhere were pretty much nil. So I looked around, asked myself where they were paying writers actual money, and went to the Bay Area in search of a job in high tech. At that point, I sort of thought my writing career was over before it had even started, and I just wanted to make some money. I fell into the trap of thinking that writing and having a real job were mutually exclusive. I gave up.

And then Terry Tempest Williams, god bless her soul, fell in love with my book, and on the strength of that, I got an agent, and several months later, after a roller-coaster ride of hope and rumors, my book was picked up by Picador for a very modest advance. The kind of advance that made it clear I should continue to pursue making the transition from an internship at Cisco (yes, 35 years old, PhD candidate — intern. Sad thing was that internship paid more than any job I’d ever had up to that point) to a real, full-time position.

Taking a “real” job at Cisco has been the singular most important, best decision I ever made. Taking a full-time job and keeping my eye on my long-term goal of telecommuting full-time has allowed me the financial freedom and emotional stability to write about half of a novel (that I’m unfortunately pretty sure is now dead), to start this new memoir, to buy this house and build the life that I only romanticize a little bit for you all. It allowed me to help Patrick financially when he needed it, and to survive his death. It took some doing — it took being very clear about what I wanted at Cisco, it took three years of being a very good do-be and working my ass off, a time during which I didn’t get much writing done. It took some effort to resist the pressure to become a manager. It took some creativity in finding technologies and solutions that would allow me to transmit edited manuscripts electronically and making sure that my writers didn’t feel abandoned. Mostly though, it took being very clear all along that this Cisco is my job and that my career is writing and that the one does not cancel out the other.

I know people who make a living without having a day job and they have skills I don’t have. I’m terrible at pitching magazine articles, and I couldn’t write a screenplay or teleplay if my life depended on it. I’m not good at those things. I am good at editing technical documents. I like it. I like the people I work with and I like a stable paycheck every two weeks. A stable paycheck that gives me the freedom to not have to crank out a book every two years (which is good because I’m a very slow writer). It’s Jim’s advice I think of every time I’m at a crossroads. How do I need to organize my life so I can get the next book written? And then, of course, comes the hard part — parking your butt in the chair every day and producing pages — but that’s a different topic altogether.

10 thoughts on “Jim Houston’s Advice

  1. Congratulations on getting an agent and gathering fans of your book! I’m an aspiring writer meself (though too young to do or try much) and I love hearing about successes like that. It allows me to dream! : )

  2. hmm. editing technical documents. ::light bulb::

    that salon article has certainly generated many excellent responses in the blogosphere! thanks for yours.

    fyi, your link to the Salon letters has some extra quotation marks in it, so it doesn’t work.

  3. Charlotte, thanks so much for your comments on the salon article. “Jane Doe’s” complaints are a variant of warnings and bitch-and-moans I’ve heard reapeatedly over the past several years as I’ve gotten more involved in writing, gotten to know more writers, and spent more time with author hopefuls. The choice usually seems to be to suffer grinding poverty, or give up writing in exchange for a full-time job.

    I think far too little attention has been paid in recent years to the difference between ‘job’ and ‘career,’ and to fact that a person can, with a lot of focus, effort, and attention, have both at the same time. And “that one does not cancel out the other,” as you say.

    For the past decade I’ve been at one career crossroads or another, and until very recently I haven’t found a good way to figure out how to deal with it. I love hearing from voices of experience like yours! It’s too easy to consider oneself a failure when success is as narrowly defined as it is in our popular culture. And declaring failure usually means quitting. I love that I’m encountering more people like you who are helping me re-define success in more realistic and mature terms.

    Thanks again!

  4. It occurred to me as I woke this morning that I have never seen a writing seminar even close to “Arranging Your Life to Finish Your Novel.” I’d love to be in that workshop, though!

  5. “And then, of course, comes the hard part — parking your butt in the chair every day and producing pages — but that’s a different topic altogether.” I really am interested in hearing about this part of it all. I’m curious about your writing routine and how you approach the actual act of writing.

  6. I took off a few years when my husband accepted a promotion that would pay enough for me to stay at home and be a Full Time Writer. The only catch was we had to move cross country. And his mother had to come with us. And we had a 8 year old, 6 year old, and 1 year old.

    After the West Coast move, we moved another 2000 miles in 18 months. Meanwhile, I become the Stay At Home Mom who can be: ___________(fill in the blank: room mother, class trip chaperone, Sunday School teacher, wrapping paper fundraiser chairperson, PTA Vice President, Den Leader) (“We thought you’d be great for this since you don’t work outside the home.”)

    And then the husband lost that job, was unemployed (great writing environment: “what are you doing? Writing. Oh. Why? I need the computer to look for a job. Here, take it. No, you keep writing, after all one of us should have something gainful to do all day. Take the f-ing computer!!)

    Hubby then takes another West Coast job. (Time to move again children. Watch Mommy take her writing and burn it in the fireplace as I now have to pack up all our belongings for the third time in 3 years and it will be one less thing to find a box for.)

    Husband gets sick and needs surgery and loses that job. Writing is no longer possible when fingers are frozen in fear. Mother In Law states aloud that she knows everyone has a book in them but shouldn’t I be looking for a job?

    In the end, I went back to work. What a relief. I am writing more now than I ever did when I had all the time in the world. I stink at selling my writing, can do my chosen career pretty well, and can write what I want.

    I’ve got two stalled, half-finished novels and a new memoir taking shape. When you figure out how to get the books written, to transform them from dreams to words, please publish it here immediately!

  7. I wish there was some magic advice I could give you but there isn’t. The key is, as Wallace Stegner once said, “parking your butt in the chair.” He had four hours a day as his minimum. I have a free two hours in the morning before I feel the siren call of my Cisco job (the one-hour time difference buys me some time in the morning). I manage to work probably five days out of seven and I wish it was more. Some weeks, when I’m between releases at Cisco and there isnt’ so much editing to do, I get more than two hours in at a time, but when I can do that, it’s mostly spent reading. I’ve never been able to write first drafts for more than an hour or two a day — revisions I can work about four hours before I’m burnt. But it’s different for everyone — the key is to figure out what works for you, and then to dedicate yourself to it.

  8. About a year ago, I was talking to the chair of the English department where I teach (which is in a different state from the English department where I’m getting my PhD). I was ‘stuck’ on the diss, and he remarked that all I needed was a way to take 6 months off to finish it.

    (It seems that he had finished his diss in 6 months after getting a job offer that required him to have ‘degree in hand.’)

    He also mentioned that during the 6 months he took to finish the diss, his patient (and employed) wife only saw him 4 times a day: when she slid lunch & dinner into his office & when she came to retrieve the dirty dishes.

    I like my department chair, but something about his story made me want to scream. Except for a 6 month period during which we moved & I was dreadfully depressed in our then-new home, I’ve worked multiple jobs throughout my PhD studies. I’ve cooked, cleaned, and done laundry. At no point did I have a “wifey” to cook & clean for me, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

    Chris has certainly helped me out during the PhD process, but he hasn’t carried me. When I get my “hood” at graduation in May, I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that I earned it, I worked for it, and I paid my financial dues. I learned how to juggle a schedule & a checkbook, and I tested *everything* against real-life experience, not some ivory-tower ideal.

    And when push came to shove, I didn’t finish the diss in 6 months. What takes a *man* 6 months & a wife to accomplish took me about 2 months to do on my own, thank you.

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