In the earliest days of my writing career, before it could even be tagged as a “writing career,” I had a particular and persistent vision of what the writing life looked like. It was informed by television shows and movies, and by snatches of behind-the-scenes glimpses into the lives of the writers I followed and loved. It was an impressionistic view—one that would have benefited greatly from the clarity that comes from today’s internet.
In the ‘80s, I couldn’t Google “Neil Gaiman’s writing gazebo.” I couldn’t follow Harlan Coben on Twitter. I couldn’t email Orson Scott Card.
Source material for insight into the writer’s life was scarce.
So my mental picture of the writer’s life was probably similar to one you’ve always held. I envisioned the writer leisurely applying his craft (all writers were male to me, in those early days—when I hadn’t yet matured enough to realize the error). I imagined a large, soft chair before a fair-sized oak desk. I could feel and hear a crackling fire in stone fireplace. I saw inkwells, quills, and nubs, because for some reason writing relied on a Victorian-level technology in my mind. I had a sense of light from paned windows, supplemented by flickering candles, illuminating sheets of parchment upon which the writer jotted thoughts between raising his hand to his chin, gazing out of the window at the green, manicured sprawl of his countryside estate, before plunging back into the writing with sudden inspiration and vigor.
Later, this vision was replaced—or rather altered—with an image of that same male writer, now hunched over a typewriter, clacking noisily while a cigarette bobbed between his lips, ash cascading to the desktop like spent thoughts, a bottle of black label whiskey and a half-full highball glass at his elbow.
Enter the dawn of my discovery of the Pulp Fiction writer, the harried professional who poured every cell of his body and every erg of his soul into the work, to relentlessly produce at a galling speed.
This seems the most likely origin of the template for the writer’s work ethic that drives me to this day. Though I’m not much of a drinker (I do love a good Scotch, and love even more a good bourbon), I see the Pulp Fiction era as the heaviest influence on me, in terms of writing discipline and productivity. Indeed, I see it as the intellectual sire of the indie author movement. We are the spiritual ancestors of that group of writers who paid for their family’s lives through merciless attacks on the emptyt page. There is no doubting the similarities.
It was in the ‘80s and ‘90s that I started to learn more about the authors penning books I loved, and I started to see some patterns. I was starting to discover women—both as an adolescent male and as a being of budding intellect—and as I peeked further behind the curtain of the authors I read, I learned some of their similarities, saw some of the patterns.
There was a perception, dominant for me at the time, of the author as tragic. The writer’s life was messy, dominated by the existential crisis of a blank page screaming to be filled. That drinking, romanticized in my vision of the Pulp era, was now the release, the escape, the life preserver that desperate authors clung to, even as it weighed some of them down so much that they drowned while thinking they were treading water.
Writing was still romantic to me, the writing life still felt like the promise of comfort and endless hours of joy, a life answerable to no one. But it was also darker. It had sharp edges. I came to realize that, like finding your father’s loaded pistol in his sock drawer, writing was something you needed to be cautious about touching, you needed to handle with respect. The writer’s life, for the first time, felt a little foreboding.
By this time I’d had my first taste of writing professionally. Meaning I was writing, and someone was giving me money for it. I was twelve years old when I got paid for my words for the first time. I liked it. And it changed the inflection and tone of my thinking. Writing was a source of income.
No… that’s a little too specific. I wasn’t that mature yet.
It was more like, “Writing is something I do that people find valuable.” If you can pepper mental references to Transformers and Indiana Jones and The Real Ghostbusters into the DNA of that perception, you’ll probably have a decent idea of where my thinking had led me.
Writing was a way to make people care about what I thought. Enough that they paid me for it, which meant I could buy things that I wanted.
But here’s where incongruity and cognitive dissonance shaped the way I saw the writer’s life.
Because subconsciously I was starting to consider myself a writer, but I wouldn’t really allow myself to lay full claim to that label for many years.
The reason for that was simple: I didn’t have the “writer life” that I envisioned. Even with the evolution of that vision, even as it had grown and evolved and reshaped itself within me, I couldn’t see any place in it for who I was.
I was a kid, wearing T-shirts with logos on them, sporting a mullet haircut, living in a South Texas town. Everyone knew that writers wore wrinkled button-downs, had their hair in ponytails, and lived in Manhattan.
I watched cartoons, drank Yoo-hoo, and climbed trees. Everyone knew that writers watched black-and-white French films, drank Scotch, and climbed fire escape stairs to the roofs of their Greenwich Village apartments.
No, I wasn’t a writer. I couldn’t be. Those clothes didn’t fit. The smell wasn’t right. I was too happy, and felt too little angst, had too few nihilistic tendencies.
That attitude may be what shaped my thinking for all those years, the thing that cost me most in terms of time spent building the sort of writing career I have today. I could have started far sooner. I could have written more books, more short stories. I could have entered the race much earlier and been much further along.
Regret is a harsh mistress, though. We don’t date anymore. We still run into each other at parties.
The point is, my perception of the writer’s life was so narrow and confining, I didn’t fit within it. And it cost me.
It would be years before I realized my error. Years move before I even approached correcting it.
I spent a large chunk of my life and career writing for a living, but not realizing that’s what I was doing. I spent that time criticizing myself for not “being a writer,” and usually being the most critical of myself while I was actually creating a maelstrom of written work for employers and clients. I never caught the irony.
I fooled myself into believing, stupidly, that I would need to work hard at a job I did not like, spend myself to spiritual poverty on years of unrelated labor, before I could “retire and start writing books.”
That was my “someday.” That was my “exit strategy.”
It wasn’t until I did a stupid thing, a foolish and ridiculous and wonderful thing, that this notion changed. And along with it, my entire perception of the writer life.
It started when I wrote a book, and I sent it to an agent.
That book was bought. Money—a lot of money—was given to me, a young twenty-something who hadn’t had much money all at once at any given time in his life. A young man who hadn’t had $5 for gas not long before, who was subsisting on ramen noodles at 10 packs for a quarter, and whatever free condiments he could snag from fast food restaurants.
Suddenly, upon me, the dream of the writer’s life had been delivered, like a bucket of cool water over my head, on a hot Texas summer day.
I felt like I’d made it. I celebrated. I spent the money, well ahead of the book’s release, and became the sort of guy who thinks getting a book deal has solved every problem in the universe. I crowed. I strutted. I bragged. I never missed a chance to tell people I was an author.
And then… it fell apart.
The book deal came with strings. I was on the hook for a very large chunk of the marketing, paying out of pocket for any exposure beyond the fairly bland and anemic level of promotion that the publisher offered. I learned for the first time—because I had not really read the contract I had signed—that this good fortune came with some heavy burdens. And I was in no way prepared to bear them.
I eventually had to admit to myself that I’d screwed up, that this was not my dream coming true, as I’d first thought. And so I did the unthinkable—I bought my way out of the contract. It cost me everything about that book, from the advance I was paid to the rights to publish, for a very long stretch of time. More than that, it cost me the love I had for it, the passion I’d had in writing it, and the courage I’d had in presenting it to the gatekeepers, to ask them if it was worthy.
That book hasn’t seen the light of day since, and probably never will.
That was the end. The dream was over.
I had no idea what good news that series of events would turn out to be.
Because once the dream was over, so were the illusions of the writer’s life, the foggy photo I held in my head about what that life would be was now shredded and discarded. Which created room for it to be replaced by a new idea—one that would take time to blossom, but the fruit it’s produced is the sweetest I’ve known.
It was as simple as this:
The writer life isn’t a desk or a typewriter or a bottle of booze. It isn’t a quill or an inkwell. It isn’t long, suffering nights surrounded by crumpled paper and old jazz records, and it isn’t sitting in the utility closet of a trailer home hacking away at a noisy typewriter.
It’s none of those things.
And it’s all those things.
The life you have. The very place where you find yourself. The very worn and beaten laptop you use, the piece of software you cherish, the expensive pen you got for college graduation, the wobbling café table at Starbucks, the lap desk and iPad, the 3×5 notecards, the voice recorder you dictate into.
It’s none of that, it’s all of that.
The writing life is a come-as-you-are party.
The stupid thing I did was invest all of my hope in something that wasn’t real. I tried to mold myself into an image that didn’t fit. And when things went bad, they took me with them.
It was years later before I tried again. And at the time, I wasn’t really trying. I had moved on. Being a writer was just a day job. It wasn’t a dream anymore. Except…
Except dreams only nap for a while. Dreams don’t ever fully go away. It’s us who go away, until we find ourselves wandering back down old and familiar trails, seeing them for the first time with brand new eyes. The eyes of a new perspective, born from the growth and evolution of our souls.
I wrote a book to help explain a story that I thought would make a good television series. And when that book was written, it changed me. And when I discovered it could be published, without gatekeepers, under my own power, it changed me again.
I realized, suddenly, like becoming lucid in a dream, that I had something, all along, that I’d dreamt of, something I only had to realize to make true.
I had a writer’s life.
It looked familiar. It looked exactly like my self.
This is what I want you to take from this post, by the way. I want you to realize that whatever you think of as the writer’s life, it’s probably an illusion. It’s probably just a story. You can use it to inspire yourself. You can even set it as a goal, something to work toward. But you don’t need it as a definition. It isn’t a rule you have to follow.
You already have the writer’s life. You’ve had it all along.
It’s always been you.