A couple of months back, I rolled out of bed, turned on the TV, and the scrolling headlines on the local morning news were blaring about a murder in my town.
I muttered the appropriate obscenities, threw on some clothes, brushed my teeth, and ran out the door with my camera and notebook, because that’s what you do when you’re a local reporter. You take pictures of Mounties peering at a car with a bullet-riddled windshield in the dour 7 a.m. light of a sleety January day.
What I didn’t do on that day was get any fiction writing done. I was heading out the door when the second alarm on my phone went off, the alert telling me it was time to start smacking the keyboard while processing the day’s first caffeine infusion.
Nope. Gotta do the day job. Sorry, writing, see you tomorrow.
There are days where I sit back and think that, actually, I’m doing okay at this science fiction writing thing. I’ve been published in Asimov’s (Oh, childhood dream become printed reality!) I’ve sold to Ellen Datlow and the late Gardner Dozois, I’ve been reprinted in a Year’s Best anthology, and I’m now able to say “I’ve appeared in Analog… twice!”
(One must always pause for dramatic emphasis when bragging.)
But of course, that confidence is not the usual state of affairs.
Usually, I feel like a raccoon who has conned his way into the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, is about to be identified as the trash-eating vermin he is, and ejected with a comically loud THWACK of a boot to the backside.
I do not refer to myself as a “writer,” not internally, and definitely not out loud to, like, other humans. I am someone who writes, sometimes, and who has published some stuff, and who might, someday, have an agent and sell a book, or might not. Best not to get one’s hopes up.
Mostly this is self-generated (yay, imposter syndrome, so fun, glad there’s enough for everybody!) but every once in a while, an interview or a blog post by a writer (you know, a real writer) can also feel crushing. It’s not awards or sales that spark this breed of envy. It’s how they’ve centred writing in their lives.
“A writing life” is what I wanted since I was twelve, after I decided that making up stories was fun and I would like to do it all the time instead of having a real job. By the time I was a teenager, I even had a semi-accurate model of the publishing world built up in my head. I knew what an agent was, how books were submitted, I had some vague ideas about publishing contracts. I was decently armed to start down that path of (attempting) to become a writer.
I did not have the wherewithal to actually pursue writing in the way that the writers I envy did.
The ones who went to Clarion in their twenties.
The ones who went to Clarion, period.
The ones who went to university to study creative writing and not, just to pick a totally random example, to acquire a two-year journalism diploma and at nineteen years old find themselves reporting on municipal zoning hearings in their suburban home town.
The ones with MFAs.
The ones who go on retreats.
The ones who have an agent call them.
The ones who get grants, who understand the mysterious source of grants, possibly through arcane knowledge granted by an old woman met on the forest path with whom they shared their last crust of bread.
The ones who know how to network, or can at least fake it well enough that it looks convincing.
I know, intellectually, that the people who manage to do all these things are still often struggling to breathe under the 10-ton weight of feelings of inadequacy.
Kameron Hurley, who has a career and a body of work I would fight a dozen rabid mongooses for, has spoken repeatedly about burnout, stress, feeling like you’re not making it, you’re not breaking through. It’s endemic. You can tick every one of those envy-inducing boxes I listed, and still feel like you’re a fraud. We’re all trash pandas at the dog show, and somehow we all think the other guy is a blue-ribbon wheaten terrier.
That said, there is a division between writers – or at least a gradient. Some people – a few people – do manage to build a life around writing and publishing. Fiction occupies a prime place. Either they are the increasingly-rare full-time author, or they’re writers-who-also-teach-writing, or writers-who-also-edit-fiction, or writers-who-have-a-rich-spouse-and-can-just-hang-at-the-coffee-shop. Their lives orbit tightly around the bright star of their passion.
For me, writing is a comet on an elliptical orbit.
Sometimes, it appears in the sky trailing cold fire. Stories spill out, and I manage to overcome my own inherent laziness (still my biggest hurdle by far as a writer, far larger than anything else I’m whinging about here) and crank out two, three short stories a month, maybe edit a hundred pages of whatever novel-shaped lump I have at hand.
Other times, it recedes out of range, into the dark of the outer solar system.
Writing is ejected by the gravitational force of life.
The job is the big one, of course, demanding asshole that it sometimes is. But beyond that it feels like life is just an endless series of tasks designed to wear down your enthusiasm for the keyboard. Cook dinner. Buy groceries. Laundry. Clean the condo. Clean out the cat litter. Scrub the toilets. Better get some exercise, don’t want to keel over and die. Cook dinner. (Didn’t we just do that? Wait, we have to do that EVERY DAY?)
Once you throw in the things you actually want to do, like spending time with your loved ones and playing with the cat, you’re pretty much tuckered out. No, I don’t think I should write at 9:30 p.m. I have to get up early. Want to watch an episode of that glass blowing show on Netflix? It’s pretty good. Cue humorous snoring sound effects from the vicinity of the couch.
If I am very disciplined, and very energized, my writing time amounts to about forty-five minutes weekday mornings, and a couple of hours each on Saturday and Sunday.
I want more, but at this stage in my life, it seems unlikely.
The reason that I have a life that includes writing instead of a writing life is a series of decisions, mostly made in my late teens and early 20s. I made some of them eyes-open, others were made for me, and still others I had no idea were choices. All of them, conscious or not, made out of fear or love or pragmatism or by default, are now deep-rooted, entwined, and impossible to haul out the soil of my past.
For the last couple of years I’ve been trying to come to terms with this state. There is no shame in a life with writing, but when you’ve wanted a writing life for thirty years, how do you reconcile the dream with the more prosaic reality?
The best I course I can chart seems to be one that combines acceptance and stubbornness.
I may not have much writing time. I may sometimes get what I have snatched away by Fate, may she stub her toe in the dark on the way to the toilet. I may never become a full-time writer, much less a bestseller. I may never go on tour or be invited to write for an anthology.
But I will use the time I have.
This has been much on my mind because I just wrapped up edits on a novel, faster than expected thanks to a couple of weeks off work.
The thing that gives me hope is that I really, really enjoyed writing this book. My silly swashbuckling fantasy was a balm to the soul, especially in 2020. (Whatever your equivalent of “sword fight in an opera house” level of fun writing is, I highly recommend it for stress relief.) I had fun writing this book, I (mostly) had fun editing it, and if it never sells, I will not regret having written it. It still feels like the book I wanted to write when I started, and that’s a small miracle right there.
And I already know what I’m writing next, and possibly after that. And if I get bored, there are those short stories I really need to edit and submit somewhere. Maybe I’ll get three or four finished this year, in between wrestling with query letters.
Writing for its own sake is what you’re always told to do, and I do. That’s why I kind of resent the fact that I don’t get to do more of it?
So there is always the part of me – even now – that is hoping this manuscript will be the thing, the thing that lets me quit the day job and become a full-time writer. And there’s the rest of my brain reminding me gently to temper those expectations. A writing life probably isn’t in the cards. Very, very few people get to live out as much of their childhood dreams as I’ve managed.
That’s the human condition. Those of us who did not grow up to become rock stars and millionaire athletes and astronauts contain small tragedies, walking around and working and paying the bills and loving and being loved and all the time, inside, there’s a spark of joy and a pinpoint of sadness in a tight binary orbit. What could have been, what was; what is, what might still be.
I’ll always wonder what I would have made of a writing life, if I would have made it or if I would have crashed and burned. I can envy a writing life, and also acknowledge that it demands a lot, maybe more than I could have given. Some things would likely have been lost – that’s the thing about lives, in the end, you’re picking from different sets of regrets.
The flip side of a life with writing is you know you have a life, and mine is pretty great. It’s good to be a raccoon some days.
Still, if anyone wants to give me a hundred grand for the book, I won’t say no.