I’m a writer. I’ve made that statement in plenty of blog posts and told lots of people whenever the subject comes up of what I do. A writer writes. That’s a truism, of course, but plenty of writers have had to emphasize that point when people point out their supposed prolificacy. As Harlan Ellison has said, you don’t call a plumber prolific for fixing lots of pipes, and neither should you call a writer prolific for writing lots of words. If you do it every day as a full time job, the words add up.
Recently I have managed to snap out of a depression having to do with my source of income that I’ve been in for quite some time. I’m dirt poor, there’s no mistake about that, but somehow my sons and I get by, live in a decent, albeit small, apartment, eat decent food, stay clean and productive. My depression had not so much to do with our poverty, but rather the fact that instead of spending most of my time writing what I want to, which is to say my novels and short stories and memoirs and so on, I am forced by economic expediency to devote my prime writing hours to low-paying non-fiction piecework that barely keeps us paying the bills and earns me no ongoing royalties. It’s a constant treadmill that gets me nowhere. So I would do the work I have to do but begrudge the time I had to devote to it. Talk about your downward spiral. I’d wake up every morning ruing the fact that I couldn’t do what I wanted. Sure, I was thankful for the work. It kept us alive, after all, and was a damned sight better than having no work and scrabbling for it, a process I describe in my memoir “America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad.” That first year or two back in the States looking for work was hellish compared to the situation I am in now of being an independent contractor supplying work for an Internet content mill. Could be worse. Much worse. But knowing that things could be, and had been, much worse didn’t alleviate the feeling that I was missing out, that I was pissing away my talent, wasting my time doing work that was getting me nowhere.
As you could see, I was in a dead end rut. Circumstances being what they were, it was tough to snap out of it, because improving my state of mind seemed to be tied up with improving my career, which was something not in my hands alone but also caught up in the choices that editors and readers make. I am making progress with my own work, the work I love to do, but it’s slow progress. I can’t really force things to happen more quickly. I already work most days from about seven in the morning until almost midnight, taking breaks only to shop, prepare meals, clean up, and take a necessary afternoon nap. No, there’s not too much slack time to play with.
So what to do about it? I saw no way out. Hence my despair. Well, the hell with that. Depression sucks. So what finally happened? I realized that as a writer, the talent comes from within. It’s not something that runs out. It’s like a fountain that doesn’t run dry. So it costs me nothing extra to throw all of my talent into whatever piece of work I am doing, whether novel or short story or memoir or blog post or Internet article some company is paying me a crappy piecemeal set wage for. I’d love to spend all my writing time mining my own gold, sure. But if I can’t, at least I’m writing and not doing something else, and I can have fun making that piece of writing, whatever it is, the best it can possibly be. It’s like that song Stephen Stills used to sing. If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. I did a quick analysis in my head and figure that I make about ninety percent of my income writing non-fiction articles and ten percent through book royalties and short story sales. So I pretty damn well better learn to enjoy writing non-fiction articles or I’m going to be miserable ninety percent of the time.
I may be poor, but at least I’m writing fulltime. I may not always get to write what I want, but at least I’m writing fulltime. There’s not a job in the whole wide world I’d rather be doing. It was this realization that snapped me out of my depression. Just last night I was reading a thread on a writer’s forum about how much money most writers earn. It’s not much. Sure, there are those who make much, much more. And self-publishing has opened the gates to make it possible for many more people to make a decent wage writing. But it’s not easy. There are no guarantees. One year it may all come your way, and the next year things might change and the royalties drop and it’s a constant struggle. Writing is not an occupation for those who want to live on easy street. As the Grateful Dead sing in “Uncle John’s Band,” life on easy street isn’t as safe as it appears anyway.
The same principle applies for blog posts too. I put in as much effort with blog posts as I do with my fiction, even though I don’t have many regular readers. I do get notes from time to time about how much someone appreciates a post. That’s a good payback. I knew that the collection of book reviews I put together about a year ago wouldn’t have as much chance of selling as fiction, but I did it anyway because it’s the type of book I look for sometimes, and such books are hard to find.
In closing, I have learned to enjoy life more not so much by accepting my circumstances, as I still struggle to produce fiction and hope that someday it will support my sons and I, as in giving my all to whatever I have to do. Some – actually all – of my sons are into exercising and keeping fit. It would be ludicrous of them to go down to the gym and pump iron with fifty percent of their energy, thinking that they don’t really like to do it as much as their martial arts workout so why put in the effort. No, you have to give one hundred percent in whatever you are doing. Giving my all in the articles I write for cash makes me a better writer in the things I like to do. Why hold back? The talent replenishes itself faster than I can use it up, and the more I invest in it, the stronger and deeper it gets.
Recently I had the chance to hear an interview with the actress Sharon Kelly. She did a lot of grind-house movies in the years ago. But, even in her 60’s, she was up-beat. She said that acting in these films wasn’t so bad. “After all”, she pointed out, “I could have been selling shoes all day”.
It’s always a matter of perspective.