Writing Doesn’t Have To Be Your Job… unless it doesNovember 22nd, 2009 at 11:57
Have you noticed that I’ve been blogging rather a lot lately? For some reason, the unreasonably high output demanded by Nano seems to demand that I also write lots more in other places too. Odd, really. It’s like my writing muscles have expanded so much that one skimpy little novel isn’t enough for them.
Justine Larbalestier talks here about why professional writers don’t wait around for some fickle muse to show her prettily-permed head – which resonated with me, as I’m really not a muse-type, I prefer to anthropomorphise my stories themselves, usually as a bunch of self-deluded thugs who bash me over the head with their beautifully-dressed characters and drag me back to their cave.
But something else that hit home was at the end of her post where she reiterates that the advice she is giving is really for those people who see writing as their job.
This is important because almost all writing advice, particularly the advice about the physical process of writing (rather than, say, how to make your characters more 3 dimensional or whatever) is geared towards people who see it as a job. Not necessarily the job they have now, but the dream job that they aspire towards and are training for.
As Justine points out, NaNo is a really good chance for people to try on the professional-writer-pants and see how well they fit. Not being a NaNo writer doesn’t remove your potential pro writer credentials (many pro writers blink rapidly and have to have a lie down at the thought of 50K in one month), but regardless of your word target, it is a chance for people to step out of their everyday life structure and focus on writing as an exclusive priority for a month.
For many people, it won’t work out. Not because they can’t physically produce that many words in that time (though many can’t, and end up dispirited because of it), but because that kind of full on, brain-in-writer-mode obsession is actually not for them. Hell, there are plenty of people who can comfortably participate in and win at NaNo without actually viewing the writing of fiction as anything other than a pleasant hobby. Yes folks, there are people out there writing novels as a social exercise, or just to see if they can!
But there is a huge difference between writing for pleasure and writing as a job. Many writers make the transition at some point in their lives. Some start out from the beginning as if it’s a job (I was pretty much doing this from age 13). Some never plan to do it as anything more than recreation. Until I started reading fan fiction and joining a narrative RPG, I didn’t understand the concept of writing for fun, with no ambition to turn it into career-based works. But while several people have made the transition from fanfic writing to original writing with great success, many people just write fanfic or play narrative RPGs for the same reason that others quilt or cross-stitch or scrapbook. Because it’s fun.
I also noticed this in my creative writing teaching days – there were always people in the class who really wanted to write professionally, and others who just wanted to write one special book (for their family, usually) and it was quite hard to integrate both types of writers into one class, because their needs were so very different. I think it’s hard for those of us who think of writing as a job to remember that many people in fact have lives that do not revolve around writing. (I forget that people do things other than write novels, so ‘write a novel’ is usually my go to advice, often in quite inappropriate situations)
Then there are those who are mostly definitely writing professionally, but not as a full time job. Which is most pro writers. Not only because it’s so difficult and rare to earn a full time living at writing, but also because very few people can actually physically write enough words to earn that professional living without having their head explode. Writing, like many forms of art, doesn’t really fit into a conventional 9-5 set up. Some writers are able to do that, but again, it’s unusual. The benefit of writing as a job, after all, is how flexible it is. (which means we can do it in the evenings and on weekends, which our families just LOVE, by the way)
Writing as a job is really, really hard. It sucks because it’s the kind of job that only works when you are in the mood. You don’t get paid leave, holidays or super, and you get paid entirely on final performace. Slacking off doesn’t cost your boss money, it costs you money. However magical it might sound to sit around and make up stories all day instead of having to go to an office or whatever… yeah. I think anyone who has a crafting hobby who has been asked if they would like to sell their work and figured out how appalling their hourly rate was (sure you love to cross-stitch, but would you like to do it 8 hours a day for the rest of your life and get paid per square inch?) can empathise here.
Writing is also an awesome job, obviously, if you can manage to get into a position where you are earning enough to really call it a job and not just a hobby you are being Really Professional about in the hopes of someday earning enough to justify all those late nights and skipped weekends. if you’re the kind of person who is constantly writing anyway then turning it into a job is really a matter of sensible efficiency.
I’m a mother of two very small girls, which means that even if I was earning the Trudi Canavan money or getting multiple contract offers of Sean Williams or Karen Miller proportions, I could not be a full time writer. Until Jem starts school, which is a good five years off, I don’t have time or space for anything other than a part time job. Hell, almost everything I do between now and them starting high school will probably be categorised in my brain as ‘part time job’ regardless of the hours I work and the pay I receive.
Currently that part time job consists of fulfilling a three book contract over two years… and I’m hoping for more after that. But I am ridiculously lucky that as a stay-at-home mum with a partner who pays the big bills, I’m not actually obliged to try to start out by earning a full time wage. I can view my writing as a job without being in a position where I need writing to be my entire job. It’s a crazy amount of pressure to put on yourself.
In my entire writing career thus far, I have had one year in which I was being paid anything close to a living wage, with no other support (ie I earned enough that Austudy was no longer my friend) and I was still doing full-time university study at the same time. Writing has never been full time for me, which is a positive thing. If you do nothing but write, you run out of things to write about, surely. Or possibly the words just spiral around in an endless circle. This is more true the younger you are.
Writing fits around other jobs. Indeed, I know many people who say their writing productivity was higher when they were working in other fields as well. While those in full time jobs or with full time parenting responsibilities may dream of the mythical ‘one entire day to write,’ it’s actually really daunting to have an empty day ahead of you, with the obligation that it somehow be more productive than all the other days. Writing is one of the best possible jobs to ‘give to a busy person.’
While NaNo does not fully replicate the experience of writing professionally, I think it does give many people a chance to figure out whether ‘writing as a job,’ is their cup of tea. If nothing else, I suspect it bursts quite a few bubbles of how it must be a really easy or desirable job. Some may even decide that writing no longer suits them as a hobby – that they simply don’t want to spend that amount of time on the printed page.
For others, NaNo may be the final straw in a writing addiction that will never truly go away. Even if it only turns up every November.