The Truth About Being a Writer

Last fall I was invited to visit an area private school to get folks into the spirit of Thanksgiving. It was a full-day affair and my schedule was so packed that I was given a “handler,” someone whose job was to run me from one classroom to the next. My handler was a lovely young librarian named Amanda who had the patience of a saint.

It was a great day, and I’m pleased to report that I was well received. (I have a gift for being goofy around children. Kids like goofy.)

I kept my dog and pony show pretty consistent from one class to the next. First I told the kids about how I woke my parents up on Sundays at 5 am by banging on my dad’s typewriter. Then I talked about my wonderful, influential (if perpetually frowny-faced) sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Snelback. Then I talked about my days as a reporter.

“As a reporter I wrote about everything!” I would announce, oozing with faux smugness. “Everything! Try me! Name anything at all, and I bet I’ve written about it! I’ve written about EVERYTHING!”

I then called on a kid who, without fail, would spout something ludicrous. (“Robot mummies that are really apes!”)

To which I would reply, “Everything except that.”

This gag brought down the house every time.

Then I dialed it back and segued into a little talk about Thanksgiving followed by a reading of my book, Sarah Gives Thanks. This was followed by the Q&A thing, which would continue until Amanda, who was watching the clock with growing alarm, was forced to grab me by the elbow and drag me to the next class.

In the afternoon, as Amanda and I hustled to my final appearance, for which I was already late, I asked, “What grade is this next group?”

I had noticed as the day progressed that the age of my audience was increasing. I started with third graders. Then I was led to fourth graders. I had just finished the fifth. Sixth grade was pushing it age-wise for a picture book author, I thought, but the fifth graders were my best audience of the day so I figured I’d be fine.

“What…grade?” Amanda repeated, panting as she ran.

“Sixth grade?” I asked, also panting.

Amanda shook her head. “Seniors,” she replied.

High school seniors? Hm. Perhaps it was time to rethink my dog and pony show.

But it wasn’t a class, really, more like a half-dozen seniors who weaseled their way out of another class to sit around a table with me in the school’s library.

These were the creative writing students who wrote creatively outside of the classroom. They had dreams of pursuing writing as a career. Because of the group’s size, the chat was relaxed and informal and driven by the questions they asked – which were intelligent, earnest, and plentiful.

At one point in our talk I heard myself say this:

“I want you to know that you can have a career as a writer. You can support a family as a writer. It’s not easy. You might need to write about a lot things you don’t care all that much about. But if you work hard and never give up, you can do it.”

I wasn’t planning for a halftime locker room speech, but there it was.

My statement was greeted with complete silence. I looked around the table and was met with wide eyes. In that moment I got the idea that no one had ever told them those words before.

And that’s a shame because what I said was completely true.

I know it doesn’t always feel true. I’ve earned my living as a writer for the past 15 years, and it doesn’t always feel true to me. Sometimes, when I’m feeling lousy and the words aren’t coming, I wonder how much longer this writing life will last.

I do pull myself out of this funk, thank goodness. Eventually I realize that what’s true is true. It’s true not only for me, but for everyone.

Never forget that, OK? And if you do forget, read this post again. When I forget, I’ll meet you here. I’ll even bring donuts.

But right now I gotta go. I have a job to do. I’m off to write a story about robot mummies that are really apes. No punk kid is gonna to pull that stunt on me twice.

84 thoughts on “The Truth About Being a Writer

  1. Just curious – what kinds of questions did they ask?

    It must be confusing to sort out a realistic career path in this muddled era of traditional vs. self-publishing. Then again, many dreams for this age group probably built upon J.K. Rowling’s success story…

    • There were no questions about self-publishing – which was good because I wouldn’t have been able to offer them any answers. I personally, never considered self-publishing as an option; I decided early on that I was either going to be published by an established house or go unpublished. But that’s just me. I’m a dinosaur.

      I have a pretty broad writing resume. Once I gave them an overview of what I’ve done the questions were all over the map.

      Early in my writing career I had quite a bit of success as a playwright; once they learned this we discussed the collaborative nature of theatre, how it worked and exactly how much power a playwright has in such an environment (answer: more than you think).

      Others were more interested in the process I went through to get my book accepted. (People always want to know how I got accepted; I think they’re hoping they can do the same thing. But, well, it doesn’t work that way.) Then we discussed the editing process.

      One girl was interested in getting some writing credits, so she and I developed a few strategies to make that happen.

      We talked about research. Sarah Gives Thanks is heavily researched and they wanted to understand that process, too.

      You get the picture, I think. I found the whole thing to be quite rewarding.

  2. As usual, a comic look into that fabulous mind of yours….. (You might want to correct the spelling of “completely”.)

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the referenced articles in today’s post. To me, this one adds another terrific layer onto the already earlier foundation you have created in helping writers and aspiring writers pursue the activity of writing. It was these type of post that urged me to click on the “follow” button. Not only are you a good writer, you are a good communicator. I’m glad I am able to be the beneficiary of what’s in your head.

  4. I am extremely interested in reading about robot mummies that are really apes 🙂 Also, as I’m sure you know since you’ve been to my blog, I love donuts. Apple cider donuts with cinnamon sugar on them are my favorites, in case you’re taking orders… Your school visit sounds interesting, entertaining and inspirational – those were some lucky kids. I’m surprised they gave you such a range of ages, but it sounds like it worked out well!

  5. You know, I became an engineer because no one told me I could make it as a writer–although one engineering prof told me I wrote better than any engineer he ever knew. In fact, most everyone told me the opposite–that I needed to get a “real” degree to get a “real” job.

    So I love that you’re giving kids this info/ammo to use against the naysayers. It would have cut about 15 years off my journey if I’d had a mentor or at least someone who encouraged me to pursue writing. But–15 years down the road–the engineering undergrad degree did get me in the door for highpaying writing/editing gigs that deal with numbers and analysis. Guess it wasn’t for naught, eh?

    Your day sounds awesome. Wish I could have been a fly on the wall.

    • I, too, came to the writing profession later than expected. I went to college for a graphic design degree, and worked as a designer for four more years before I made the leap. I don’t consider my design detour to be a waste of eight years. It, like most things, was a learning experience.

      The best part about being a designer was that the job put me in close proximity to writers and editors. As I observed them, I heard myself say, “Sheesh, I can do that!” on more than a few occasions. A good motivator, that.

  6. Oh Mike, this is SUCH a brilliant post and JUST what I needed to read right now; simple, sincere and straight to the point. I think I’d better save it somewhere because I might have to return to it a few times…especially as you’re bringing the donuts:-) Are digital donuts easier to eat without licking your lips? Now when’s the ‘robot mommies who are really apes’ story coming out?

    • Digital donuts are wonderful ’cause you don’t get those sticky fingerprints on your iPad.

      But since you are such a good friend, I will FedEx you a REAL donut in a padded envelope. Handle with care, OK?

  7. Interesting, too, to navigate the minefield of leaving a (pretty well paying, secure) career to dip a toe in the writing field, all whilst explaining to husband that “these things take time.”

  8. Wow, this post was amazing. I wish you had come to my school when I was a kid. Only you were probably a kid then, too. But you probably still had the good advice back then. 🙂

  9. Where were you when I was in high school? All I was told was the astronomical odds of getting an agent or editor to even bother reading my stuff . . . and I’m only just getting over that.

    • Did your teachers tell you that? If so, shame of them.

      It’s so easy to kill a person’s passion when he or she is young. Grade school, high school, college, etc. is not the time to dwell on the harsh realities of a writing career, it is the time for a young writer to create, discover, and cultivate a unique voice.

      Let the hard stuff come later – when the aspiring writer is armed with years of practice, a few good stories to his or her credit and a healthy (perhaps pathological) desire to succeed.

  10. This brought a smile to my face. Being less than four years into my writing career, I too sometimes wonder, “How long will this last?” and then saying, “Holy crap, I actually have a writing career!” It’s so important to remind myself that I am a writer and that, with a LOT of dedication, stamina and hard work, I can support my family through this craft. Great story, Mike. Great encouragement!

  11. Rabble rouser, muse rouser, kick in the pants rouser. You’re the rouser extraordinaire. Those kids are so lucky they got that chat from you.

  12. I needed an inspirational post like this today. Thank you!!! I hope to be brave and follow in your footsteps one day. Right now I’m 9 to 5ing it as a lawyer (blech), but perhaps one day soon, I can hang it up and write, just write. That sounds so amazing.

    • Glad I could inspire, Erin!

      As for me, my writing life has always been a mixture of salaried writing jobs with freelance and spec work. The salary keeps my income stable; the freelance/spec allows my creativity to go wild (and serves as a good source supplementary income).

      It’s sort of like having a good investment portfolio, I think; you need a combination of stability and risk.

  13. So, how come you didn’t come to MY school when I was a senior and tell me that a writing career really was an option? (Probably because you were a 3rd grader or somethin’ when I was a senior, but let’s not talk logistics.) Your blog gave me goosebumps (I also had to laugh at myself – I just got home late last night after talking to a large group of women about writing and publishing and giving them my new bookmarks, feeling proud of myself at 10 p.m. – but compared to YOU, talking to a bunch of students – little ones and not so little, my feat is not so awesome). The point is, only men and women of great courage, strength of character, humor, who are risk-takers and wear thick skin, can make it with a writing career (and/or, make it talking about writing to a bunch of middle schoolers, and senior creative writing students!!). I salute you.

  14. Keeping it real, keeping it real. Luckily I’m not in for the money, but for the prestige. “Oh you write books about farting for little kids? Wow, you’re amazing!”

  15. Thanks for writing this. I, too, was not told that I could be a writer. It was as though writing for a living was a ludicrous idea. This was a great reminder that it’s not. I’ll be back for donuts!

  16. Pingback: How I Earn a Living | heylookawriterfellow

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