Thursday, March 07, 2013

Writing for a living is Hard, and other Obvious Observations

I'm one very lucky son of a bitch.

I recognize this, believe me. Most people never have the opportunity to fulfill any of their childhood dreams, but I've been lucky enough to fill many, if not most, of mine. It helps that my childhood dreams were relatively modest (though at one point I did want to be Robin to my dad's Batman, a notion which for some reason he didn't embrace with an enthusiasm equal to mine). When I was nine years old, I decided I wanted to be either an actor, an artist, or a writer -- in other words, I wanted people to pay attention to me and admire me for something I performed or accomplished. (Childhood narcissism is so cute and simple, isn't it?) To that end I started to perform plays and make movies with my friends (the acting part), I started drawing (the art) and I started writing (the, uh, well, the writing). It was my good fortune that I had parents who either encouraged or permitted or idly stood by and scratched their heads while I pursued these dreams. And it was my great fortune that I grew up in a time and place that made the potential accomplishment of any of these dreams even remotely possible.

If you read the biographies of many authors, you may find that their life stories follow two different patterns. Some writers write for a living, other writers write as a hobby.

To clarify: Some authors are what I'll call (in my insufferable superiority) part-time, non-professional writers -- people who have paying jobs which allow them to make a living (or scrape by) and who subsequently write, more or less, as a hobby. I don't want to suggest that writing as a hobby is somehow less serious or less worthwhile than the alternative (which I'll get to in a moment), I'm simply using the term to make a distinction. People pursue hobbies because they have the time and freedom to do so, and because they want to. Hobbies are, to an extent, an escape from the stress of work. By definition, a hobby may be difficult or hard or require a great deal of effort and commitment, but it is not work. Work is something you do to pay your bills and support yourself and your family; it may be difficult or easy, it may require great effort or no effort at all, but it does require a commitment, and while it may often be fun, fun is not an essential ingredient. The essential ingredient of work is that you must do it in order to survive.

To further clarify: As opposed to the authors described above, other authors are what I'll call (in my insufferable superiority) full-time, professional writers -- people who write to pay their bills and earn a living. They may enjoy writing (and most do) but the central reality of their writing lives is that they write to make money.

For most of my adult life I was a professional writer. I wrote to earn a living, and I was lucky enough to earn a very good living. I recognize that: I was lucky. There are many talented writers trying to earn a living who are unable to do so. Why the light of fortune shined on me and not on them, I have no clear idea. Maybe I was just in the right place at the right time. I grew up in New York City in the 1950s and '60s, was well-educated, and happened to approach the comic book business for work at a time when the business was desperately eager to embrace new, younger writers and artists. I didn't have a lot of competition. I was good enough and energetic enough and ambitious enough to embrace the opportunity fate offered me. And I made good.

But here's the thing: temperamentally, though I was a professional writer who wrote for a living, emotionally I wanted to write part-time as a hobby. The same good fortune that opened the door for me to become a professional writer at 16, and gave me more than four decades of success as a professional writer of comic books, novels, screenplays, and television episodes, closed the door for me to pursue writing purely for the love of it.

I made a bargain with fate at the age of 16 and was well into my 50s before I finally managed to break free. And once again, I was incredibly lucky to find a way to do so.

Remember those author biographies I mentioned earlier, when I said the life stories of authors tended to follow two different patterns? The part-time authors are usually academics, or people who have successful professional careers (doctors, lawyers, politicians, police men or women, etc.) who write in what they amusingly call their spare time. (I really admire people who work full time and then dedicate the remaining hours of their day to struggling with words.) In contrast, full-time authors are often people who pursued other careers with little success until they fell into writing as a last-ditch effort to put food on the table. Some of my favorite authors are in that second category (usually writers of genre fiction), though several writers I greatly admire are in the first. I'm sure you can think of several in both.

Because I started writing professionally while I was still in high school I never really faced the choice of pursuing a different career. If anything I felt I had no choice. I was earning a living doing something I loved -- in fact I earned more money than my father, who worked hard, long hours at a job he didn't enjoy. Faced with the opportunity to continue to earn money as a writer (and with the example of my unhappy father's working life providing a view of the unattractive alternative) I naturally embraced a career as a professional writer. Like I say, I was lucky, though at the time I was too excited by the apparently endless possibilities before me to understand both how lucky I was, and what a devil's bargain I was making.

Here's the thing I've discovered about myself over a forty year career as a writer. I'll put it in the second person because it's easier for me to do so, but I don't mean to suggest this is a universal truth:

When you start writing because you love to write, and you end up writing because you have to write to survive, you eventually find yourself unable to write at all.

By the time I quit my career as a television writer about six years ago I'd gotten to the point where it was a daily struggle to face an empty page. After four decades of writing to make a living I'd lost my enthusiasm for writing. In fact I developed an almost pathological aversion to the physical act of sitting at a keyboard. The thought of writing filled me with an emotion I can only describe as horror. I hated my working life. I wanted out, desperately.

I got out.

I've spent the past six years gradually rediscovering the original love I felt for writing. I've consciously avoided taking on assignments that might require more than a casual commitment. I take my time writing scripts when I do take assignments (to the considerable grief of my editors, I'm certain -- sorry, Joey; sorry, Jim). I write deliberately, and as thoughtfully as I can. I try to approach writing as a hobby -- as a passion project, a way to express my personal vision of the world, and whatever insights and with whatever empathy I can bring to that vision. As a result I've written very little in the last half-decade, but what I have written, I've written because I wanted to write it. Not because I've had to. I'm now working on a Young Adult fantasy-horror novel, and I'm loving every minute of it.

The fact that I've found the freedom to do this after a lifetime of pursuing a career as a professional writer is nothing short of miraculous. I recognize that. Very few people get a second shot as pursuing their childhood dreams... especially when they've already had a first shot, and enjoyed considerable success doing what they thought they wanted to do.

I am, as I say, one very lucky son of a bitch.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.


R. Branz said...

I learned a lot about myself from this. This was great. Thanks

M. said...

Eloquently expressed, and exactly true. I have followed a similar arc. Now find myself spending more time and effort on Yi Soon Shin comics than is feasible from a financial point of view, so it's more like a hobby, and infinitely more satisfying to me. Damn, Gerry, you say stuff so well, you should be a writer!


ditkomania said...

Just discovered your blog although I have been a fan since your Spider-man days and loved LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT. Thanks for sharing.