Okay, I’m going to be up front about a few things: this article is divided into two parts. The first part is helpful, will give you burgeoning professionals some realistic ideas about the hellhole you’re about to dive into, and (maybe most important) this is probably the only time you’ll ever hear something like this. It’s also very depressing. So if you’re the type who gets all panicky wondering whether Captain America is going to make it through the movie, or who stresses over Family Feud reruns, skip to part two. Also, please consider a new career choice because you are probably going to blow your brains out at some point.
I told you this was going to be depressing.
But if you’ll stick with it, I promise there’s a silver lining. Or at least a less-black lining. Sometimes that’s enough.
Part One: The Suck
First, to establish my bona fides: I’m a full-time writer. I’ve written movies, and as of now I’m a #1 bestselling novelist, one of Amazon’s top selling horror writers, and have been a bestseller in something like forty countries. I’m “successful.” And so part of my job is to travel around to cons and symposia talking about what it is to be “successful” with other folks who somehow make a living writing down our dreams (or nightmares).
Inevitably one of us writerly types makes an offhand comment about the bad-ol’ days, the days of starving, of choosing between buying a word processing program and, you know, eating. Or some comment about how many writers die of drug overdoses.
Cue laughter. And the laughter from the audience is real.
But here’s the thing: the laughter from the folks behind the table, from the speakers, the panelists, the writers…well, it’s laughter of a different sort. Laughter that’s a socially acceptable alternative to running out of the room screaming.
We make jokes about it, about the suffering. Because otherwise we’d just curl up in little balls and cry. No one wants to see that. So we laugh, and the “newbies” and “wannabes” get the wrong idea. “Ain’t it funny,” they say. “Ain’t it grand,” they muse. “Ain’t it all so terribly romantic?”
Well here’s a bit of the romantic life of a writer: me, rolling over and bumping into my wife for the umpteenth time because we’re both crammed into a full bed. We used to have a king, but couldn’t take it with us when we moved. We moved because after the first big chunk of writing money ran dry, no more came, and for some reason the people in charge of our house kept expecting money. And our kids kept wanting to eat (lousy, greedy kids!). So we packed up and moved in with my parents. Four people in two rooms downstairs. Then a new baby came. So my wife and I are still in the full, plus a screaming newborn two feet away in a room that measures maybe twelve feet by twelve feet. We made sure the kids ate well, and both the wife and I lost weight.
Hahahaha…cue laughter. So funny.
We finally got out of my parents’ place, and moved into a nice house in a beautiful neighborhood. We have a king-size bed again, and we don’t worry about eating regularly. Another kid is on the way, and this one will have his own room. But I often work sixty hours or more a week, and I just had my first vacation in four years – a whopping four days in a row!
Welcome to the life of a “successful” writer.
And most of the ones who have made it have stories like this. Look at the bios of a lot of pro writers. They’ve been short order cooks, mail carriers, teachers (and that’s all one writer, mind you). Sounds like someone’s bopping around, doing research, but really that’s just a person whose royalties didn’t cover living expenses, so he or she took what was necessary to eat.
Not many of us talk about this. Partly it’s because we want to sound like we are King Crap of Turd Mountain, like our mommies shot us out knowing how to Write Good Books and we were bestsellers from day one. But partly – maybe mostly – it’s just too painful. We write books that we love…and no one else does. Or at least not enough people do. And we and our loved ones suffer for it.
No one should have to go through that. But if you choose this life, you will.
I’ll say it again: you. WILL.
Part Two: The Silver Lining
Why do I want to hurt you? Do I want to keep you out? To eliminate the competition?
Absolutely not. I want you to write. I want you to try, and to make it!
I think everyone’s got a story to tell – a good one – and I hope you tell yours. But going in without knowing the above is a recipe for (more) heartbreak. Be prepared, and you’ll last longer.
And there’s one more thing you can do. One more thing I’ve found that reminds me on the down days, the days I feel worthless and crappy and talentless (and this from a guy who’s making steady money on a level that most people only dream of).
This is what I try to remember: writing, at its core, is an exercise in love and community.
Let me explain.
We write first for ourselves. Someone hands us a pen and paper and we disappear into the magic of the written word. We take ourselves to places that seem unique to our own minds, no matter how derivative those early stories really are.
Eventually we branch out. We get better. We show our work to friends, to family. To a cherished circle of people whom we trust to be gentle, to care for our work and our hearts – for they are one and the same. And in so doing, we bring those people closer to us, closer to each other. We extend to them our trust, and they cannot help but trust us a bit more in return. A new community springs into being, a community centered around the lie of a fiction, the Truth of a story.
Hopefully at some point that community grows beyond the people we know. People who are strangers to us – strange in custom, in background, in beliefs and culture – come to read what we create. And suddenly they are strange no more, for they have understood what we communicated. They are friends. A bigger community, a greater tribe.
We are all at different places on this spectrum. Perhaps you have barely begun to share your work with others. Perhaps you are still laboring in secretive silence, afraid to show your words to any but yourself. Possibly you have a nationwide following, but hope to move across the oceans to Europe, to Asia, to other lands farther away than most of us will ever really know.
But no matter where we are, we can all move forward. We can all continue the labor of love, continue to build those communities. The money is nice when it comes, but it is – like all material items – a temporal, transient thing that comes and goes at the whim of too many factors for anyone to really control. No man is captain of his ship, and no person is even midshipman of his bank account. Not really.
But the love we carry for our writing…that is ours to provide, and ours alone. The care we give it… that is in our control. The communities we build…those are the real purpose of the writing.
So on the nights when we roll over slowly, oh-so-carefully so as not to bump a spouse out of bed or wake a sleeping infant in a room too small for either, we remember the love we share for both, the love we share for the work we have chosen, the love we both give to and receive from those lucky enough to enjoy our work…and we somehow sleep, and dream good dreams.
The writer’s life is not easy. It is, in fact, terribly hard. Bone-crushingly stressful, and wearying to body and soul.
But it is at the same time lovely, and good, and well worth it.
Michaelbrent Collings is a #1 bestselling novelist and screenwriter, one of the top selling horror novelists on Amazon for over two years straight, and has been a bestselling novelist in over forty countries. His newest novel is This Darkness Light.
You can join his mailing list at http://eepurl.com/VHuvX to be notified of his new releases, sales, and freebies; and find more writing advice at http://michaelbrentcollings.com/writingadvice.html.