Being a Writer is a Job

When I tell people what I do for a living, I still get a lot of side eye. You know the look. It’s the one that adults give to children when they announce that they want to be Batman when they grow up. The dubious stare that says that they know something you don’t, because you are a naive fool and they know the truth about how the world works. I’ve given up being defensive about it. I don’t try to spin it. There’s no need to find some euphemism that makes it sound more important or respectable, like calling a janitor a “sanitation engineer”. Other people are free to think whatever they want about what I do. I’ll be over here making money stringing words together, whether anyone believes it’s possible or not.

I am a writer.

Chuck Wendig wrote a nice, transcendentally profane, piece about how writing is a real job. He should know, he’s making a living at it and has been for years. That post made me aware of the article written by Merritt Tierce about the boom-and-bust of her moment in the literary spotlight, and her (unrealistic) expectations that she could immediately quit her day job and coast on the strength of her first novel while working on her second. Then there was the snarky hit piece by Ester Bloom about how writing isn’t a viable career option, at which point Wendig and I and likely many other writers looked around and became confused about how our rent got paid if it wasn’t with the fruits of out efforts.

I am an entrepreneur. But mainly a writer.

In a similar vein, the only people who give me any respect when I say I’m an entrepreneur are other entrepreneurs and some (not all) business people. The general public hears the word and thinks of that crazy uncle who’s been trying to build a perpetual motion machine in his garage for the past 17 years. They conjure up images of the friend that dropped out of college who comes up with another new idea that will make them rich after every bong hit. The reality is that an entrepreneur is just someone who is constantly looking for ways to make money. I love writing. I also love eating, and sleeping indoors, and having a place to keep my few valued possessions, so in entrepreneurial fashion I try to write things that will actually make money, not just what tickles my inner artist.

Writing isn’t a job. But being a writer is.

That, as Tierce apparently still hasn’t discovered, is what a working writer has to do. She says that the idea that the notion that she has to make money writing makes her unable to write; if it’s not a “real job” it’s because she doesn’t treat it as one. It’s not a matter of artistic integrity or finding your muse; it’s about sitting down and doing the work. Nobody else could make a living if they only worked when they felt like it. “I could dig a ditch or flip a burger today, but I don’t think it would come out exactly perfect, so why bother trying?” seems to be her battle cry. This discredits Bloom’s point, I think; being a writer has to be a full—time job if you want to make a living at it. Where I’ll tentatively agree with Bloom is that writing alone isn’t a job — being a writer is a lot more than that. Being a writer means learning the market, finding what sells, pitching ideas, and promoting the living hell out of yourself and your book. If you’re sitting alone in a room staring at a blank screen, looking for the right words, and that’s all you do, then no, writing isn’t a job because you’re not treating it like a job.

Writing is work. Like any other real job.

I released a new book on Friday, and I didn’t throw a party to celebrate or plan how I was going to spend my fat stacks of royaltt payments. I went right back to work on the next book. I understand the boom-and-bust cycle, and I know that to pay the bills I need to be producing constantly. You know, just like a “real” job where you only get paid when you show up and put in the work.

I’m also a publisher. But, still, mostly a writer.

When I tell people that I’m a small-press publisher I get a little more respect, because that sounds like a job that makes money. The reason I can make a living writing is, in part, because I’m also the publisher. It’s a lot more work, because I have to do literally everything from layout to marketing, but it also means that I keep the bulk of the money. If I said that I was self—published, the general public would think that I was some sad wannabee who threw away his life savings on a vanity press and has cases of unsold books in the basement. Oddly, when I do get shade it’s from certain other small-press publishers. I don’t do things the way they do, so to them that means I’m doing it wrong; I’ll happily be wrong then, because they also tend to complain about how broke they are. They seem to think that just owning a business should guarantee them a steady income, but that’s a rant for another time.

Let’s say what we really mean, okay?

Money. That’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it? Your worth as a person is based on what people think you make. Not how hard you work, not the quality of the work you do, not even the actual amount you make, but the perception of how much money you make. It’s not the idea that you’re a writer that people have a problem with, it’s the notion that you’re somehow choosing to be poor, which in American-speak means you’re really just lazy. Why be a writer when you could do something more lucrative? Tierce really isn’t helping to fight that perception which, while I do empathize with her to a degree, really just pisses me off. It’s not that she had to take a day job or has writer’s block, it’s the petulant sense of entitlement she has because her first book got some acclaim.

I wrote this for other writers.

To be clear, I didn’t write this piece in an attempt to explain myself or to justify my existence. I don’t need to do that. As I said above, you can think that what I do isn’t a “real” job all the live-long day, but that doesn’t change the reality that I have deadlines to meet or that I somehow get the bills paid. I wrote this piece for other writers. I wrote this for the people who get it, who work hard and struggle and eke out a meager living and are tired of hearing that what they do isn’t valid. I’m doing it for the people who want to be writers but are either discouraged by people like Bloom who want to ridicule their career choices, or disheartened by people like Tierce who make it sound like a huge mistake. I wrote it to present a side of things that doesn’t seem to be represented at the moment:

Being a writer is a job. It’s not just some fun thing that people do as a hobby that occassionally, randomly and spontaneously, ends in publication. You can make a living at it. But it takes hard work and dedication. Because being a writer is a job.


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3 thoughts on “Being a Writer is a Job

  1. So, what are you saying? That I can’t be Batman when I grow up? OK, then how about The Flash?

    Smart aleck remarks aside, you make some excellent points. I read the Tierce post and wanted to bang my head on the desk. Every writer I know who is serious about their writing puts their tail in a chair and writes. And writes. And writes. They may do other things such as you do on the publishing side of things, but they write. There’s no other way.

    Hang in there and keep putting out books. I’ve followed you since before you moved to Finland. It’s been encouraging to see the progress you’ve made in your writing. The things you’ve shared about the process of supporting yourself have been one of the examples I’ve looked to for inspiration.

    1. Thanks, Keith!

      I was just looking a Robert Heinlein’s five rules for making a living as a writer, and it boils down to writing, selling your writing, and not wasting time doing anything other that writing and selling.

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