I was going to write today about the importance of re-charging one’s batteries but a recent conversation with a friend has prompted me to open a larger can of worms: What does it mean to be a professional writer? It’s more than getting paid. But because my initial impulse has bearing on this larger topic, stick with me for a few minutes.
I just spent eight days in Nova Scotia, one splendid day and evening in Halifax, looking at boats, eating good food, drinking and listening to music, followed by seven days in a beach cottage, swimming, reading, playing games, visiting family, eating, drinking and relaxing. Other than 4 e-mails to deal with a small publishing problem (small business people are never completely off) and two hours spent reading stories for a contest I’m judging, I did no work, no writing, no editing, no nothing. I had planned to write and to start editing a novel for publication, but I didn’t. It was wonderful. Even a summer cold didn’t make it less so.
I read two books – one SF novel and one memoir completely outside the field. I thought a little and, to a lesser extent, talked about writing and editing with my wife. But none of it was directed toward any actual project or plan. When I returned I was full of energy and ideas. I’ve had a great three days work and anticipate going full speed ahead for fourteen more days. Then, a short 3-day re-charge with friends and another six weeks of 7 days a week before another little break. Getting away from it all – really turning off all the ‘creative’ impulses is difficult but can often be the most creative ‘work’ you do. Clear your mind; your sub-conscious will keep working.
Part of being a professional writer is taking care of yourself – physically by getting some exercise (never enough in my case), eating well and not overdoing the vices; mentally through relaxation and diversion, that is, getting outside your normal thinking space, reading, watching or listening to things that aren’t related to your work or that stretch your understanding or what can be expressed by the human mind. Spending time on relationships and engaging in the broader world will always make you a better writer. And a more professional one. Because a professional understands where they fit within their profession and where that profession fits within the larger world.
I’m often inundated with exhortations – even angry demands – to write every day. Word counts are posted; comparisons are made. NaNoWriMo challenges are issued – now spreading past November to summer boot camps. As a former winner of the 3-day novel writing competition, I know the pleasures and rewards of writing lots and writing fast but at a certain point, more words are just more words. When Stephen King said you have to write a million words of shit, he didn’t actually mean shit. That way lies madness. (Think Jack Nicholson in The Shining.)
Writing regularly is like exercising regularly. It builds up your stamina and increases your power and prowess. Writing madly every single day is likely to have the same effect as three hours at the gym every single day. Sooner or later, you’ll do yourself an injury. Your writing may go from muscular to bulky. What you gain in punch, you may lose in flexibility. Writing is only one part of being a writer. In my experience, it may not even be the most important one. Thinking, imagining, observing, reading, editing, reflecting, being with other writers and readers, living a real life – all contribute to the mix. Writing regularly does not mean writing every day. It varies for everyone. When I’m working on a novel (having spent 2-6 months researching, thinking and planning), I try to write 15 to 22 times a month (I checked my stats for the last three books). Generally, I’ll write for four days and then take three or so off. Sometimes, near the end, I’ll write ten days in a row. Then I take six weeks off and don’t write a damn thing. Gradually, I’ll return to writing – maybe a short story, maybe some editing, starting the pre-writing process of the next book. During that time before I start a serious push, I attend to other aspects of life that may have been neglected. My marriage, my family, my hobbies, my household duties (and, of course, through much of my writing career, I’ve actually had a full-time job that I had to do even when writing novels).
If you feel compelled to put words on paper (or screen) every single day, maybe you need help. Seriously, see a therapist.
All of this is to say, that to be a professional of any kind, you need to find a work-life balance. Well, you don’t have to – but the alternative is often burn-out and dying alone and unloved. And the sad thing is – you’ll probably be a worse writer for it.
Writing is a job and like every job it has its benefits and its challenges. Writing full-time (which I theoretically did for a six years – I also acted, taught and worked in a bar) is great fun. You set your own schedule, follow your muse, get rewarded from time to time with money or praise. However, for every moment of creative joy, there are moments of dark despair and self-doubt. And if you don’t work, you don’t get paid (true generally, but you can have an unproductive day in most jobs and they don’t dock your salary). No benefits, no vacation leave, no retirement fund that you don’t provide for yourself. Some years – EVEN WHEN SUCCESSFUL – you would make more money as the assistant manager of a MacDonald’s. A few full-time writers get rich; others (fewer all the time) make a decent middle class living; most struggle with poverty or rely on a supportive spouse or a part-time job to survive. Teaching plays a significant role in most full-time writers’ lives. That’s reality and dreaming doesn’t change it. Still, for some, even a bad day writing is better than a good day doing other things. And some people would rather write hungry (in both senses of the word) than do anything else.
A professional writer doesn’t need to write; they should want to write because it is what they do best; it is what most satisfies their need for self-actualization. But as anyone who has studied their Maslow knows, self-actualization is difficult if you are tired, hungry, lonely, unloved or stressed-out. Sometimes, part of being a professional writer is recognizing you are not ready or able to do it full-time. And there is nothing wrong with that. Norm Foster, Canada’s most produced playwright (and probably best-paid) continued to work as a radio host for nearly fifteen years after his first plays were produced (and seven years after writing the most produced play in Canada in 1991). In part, he did it for security – but in equal part it was because working brought fresh insights and creative impulses to his writing.
Creativity comes in many forms. Personally, I take almost as much pleasure from an inventive supper, a well-designed balcony garden, a good photograph, an exciting relationship or solving a policy problem in the day job as I do from a well-crafted sentence or a completed story. And I certainly enjoy other people’s creativity as much as I enjoy my own.
Did I become a writer because I was compelled to because to do anything else would have ruined my life? Not at all. I write and edit and publish because I like doing it and because I want to do it. I’ve spent a lot of years honing my craft and pursuing a professional career as a writer. I’ve also spent long stretches of time (2 years in one case) without writing a single word of fiction, because I had more important things to do. At 58, I’m working harder than ever – as a writer and now, a publisher (while still holding down the day job).
I can only do that because I’ve found the necessary balance between writing about life and living it.