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.