I read an interesting article the other day about how writers view our careers. Now I can’t find the article, which is annoying, but the author of the article spoke about our skewed vision of what our lives look like with successful career.
She wrote that we live with this whimsical idea ‘a real writer’s life’: living in a small apartment overlooking a city scape with mountains of books along the walls. We head to coffee shops to write, our days and nights are spent laboring over words and concepts, and we never keep a regular sleep schedule.
Or maybe we live in a cabin in the woods, or on land — either which way, some sort of solitary space where we stare out of the window for hours and as the world moves slowly past.
Recognize that visual?
She brought up an interesting point: this writing-life ‘ideal’ is straight from the era of writers who we consider classics (addendum from me: classical white male writers, anyway). The most prominent of these writers lived these kinds of lifestyles that pop up often when someone thinks of Author Life. But — and this is a big but — she mentions that these authors did so by living in countries that were post-revolution, post-war, or post some other crisis, where living expenses were cheap and aesthetics were set to ‘elegant grunge.’
She continued her point by saying that this kind of lifestyle and way of living no longer really exists. Nowadays, most writers have day jobs: some other means of support as writing isn’t, or isn’t yet, enough.
Writing is not a terribly profitable career. It’s not necessarily steady or high-paying, and it takes an enormous amount of energy and creative blood. We do it anyway, for a variety of reasons including the inability to stop writing really. But in order to live in a capitalist society without personal patrons to sponsor the arts and the like, it takes years for us to be able to survive on just writing (if ever at all). And often, there’s a partner involved.
(Well, actually, that could be said for most careers — it’s very difficult to realistically live in a single-income household, so maybe that’s a moot point.)
So her point was that the ideal of Author Life needs to shift, that we need to incorporate and give room for reality that includes working another job, always or until writing becomes profitable.
Even before reading this article I’d been noticing something, but it clicked into place especially after I read the piece. It seems that a large percentage of the women writers I know and love tend to be stay at home moms. (Which is a job, mind you.)
The point is, they have financial support from their partners, work a job raising the next generation, and it (often but not always) allows the flexibility of sneaking in writing time around managing the household.
Now I’m not saying this is what people need to do. And I’m probably overestimating what percentage of writers are stay-at-home parents. I’m just saying that there’s often a kind of flexibility in that path that more readily allows for a writing career.
That is not to say that there aren’t other ways or that writers don’t juggle two careers. It’s pretty common for successful writers to have two careers, or be a writer after a different career. Hell, I know a lot of writers who love both of their careers. So maybe this article is aimed a little more towards those who really only get satisfaction from writing.
Me, for example: I find little real satisfaction in my ‘career’ outside of writing. But I think that has more to do with being in the wrong field than anything else. I actually want to do something other than writing, even while I know writing will be with me till the end.
At the same time, when I’m working full time it’s so difficult to make any sort of writing happen. But again, I find that most often with jobs that are draining, uninspiring, and frustrating. So I’m wondering if the nuance being teased out here is less about “other job or no other job” and more about what kind of job. How much is flexibility key in helping make a writing career possible?
And there’s another factor that adds into this. I’ve heard often, and have recognized in myself, that if all you do is write, you often run out of creative energy. So to another point, how important is it that writers do have other careers or big influences in their lives to feed creativity/prevent creative exhaustion?
I know, it’s not necessarily what any full-time-writer-hopeful wants to hear. You have to expend more energy, take time away from writing, to actually write? The more I think about this, the most intrigued I am by the history behind this Ideal Author Lifestyle that resonates through a lot of writers.
Why do we have this image of the reclusive, kept-to-theirself writer as the hallmark standard? Don’t we, as writers, write to pinpoint some aspect of the human condition, or seek or entertain through some window of the human soul? Why do we think that being cut off from society is the way to do this?
Don’t get me wrong, I get it. I’m definitely an introvert, as most of those plagued by the writing bug tends towards. And I know, the introverted and introspective tend to think deeper and harder about things in general, so it’s not like we have to be plugged into society at all times in order to observe and try to understand.
We writers need to be in the world, for financial reasons or at least creative ones. That isn’t to say that we don’t need introvert times, as writing is intrinsically a very solitary endeavor. But we still need to have some part in it.
Isn’t it interesting, that a lot of those who write about the human condition kinda often don’t really want to engage in it? Or we do, but in a way that we can retreat from when we need.
Anyway. Where I’m trying to go with this meandering stream of thoughts is that maybe the above-mentioned article right, that our image of what Ideal Author Lifestyle looks like needs to be challenged. There were quite a few Author Life whimsy depictions in the article that resonated with me (though many that didn’t as well); I hadn’t realized how much of that idea I’d internalized from a bygone era.
It seems that maybe this misleading ‘ideal’ may be to blame for some of the frustration that a lot of writers seem to feel about how their lives look now. There are so many paths to making a successful writing career, and so many ways it can look.
So what is it that we really need to be looking for out of our professional lives?
What do you think? Do you have notions of what a writer’s life looks like that you want to strive for? What’s your Ideal Author Life?