What it's really like to write for a living

“Nothing seems to be what you want to do until you consider writing. Suffering is supposed to be the raw stuff of art.” — Jay McInerney, Bright Lights Big City
writing-live

This essay was originally published in Post Grad Survival Guide.

When people ask what I do for a living, I usually say that I’m a writer ‘but, like, the boring kind.

By that I mean: the kind that gets a paycheck, not the kind that scrounges off their parents. The kind that sits down and hammers away for set hours every day, not the kind that works when the magical muse strikes. The kind that writes content and copy, not poetry and fiction.

By that I mean: I type words and get paid for it, but not in a glamorous way, not in the way that jumps to mind when you hear that word.

By that I mean: don’t look for me in my work — not most of it anyway. Don’t look for clues as to who I am. It’s work. I ghostwrite, I use pseudonyms, I avoid bylines because they feel self-indulgent.

By that I mean: no, my blog is not my job and, yes, I can really spend my days writing about stuff that’s ‘so different’ to what I write here. This blog is my hobby: it bears as much resemblance to my work as say, tennis would for a doctor or crochet for a lawyer.

But I also mean: I love what I do. I live for it. It’s my favourite thing in the world and it’s exciting every single day. Otherwise, I’d just say I work in content or marketing or some other label with less baggage.

***

The day I decided to commit to writing as a career, I got a typewriter inked in my forearm as a reminder.

This is me, I thought. This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. Isn’t there something beautiful about a decision like that? Isn’t there something both touchingly naive and heartwarmingly adult to declare yourself to be on a certain path for life?

Like most decisions that shape our lives, it’s hard to say who made it.

We are often more a product of our environments than our own free will.

None of us is born with a single calling. We learn it.

Other people had told me I was going to be a writer before I was old enough to even know what a career was and it stuck. Did they tell me that because I was good at it? Did they tell me that because I loved it? Did I love it because I was good at it? Was I good at it because I loved it? Did I get good at it because I was told I was good at it? Did I love it because I was told I loved it?

Who knows. Either way, my fate was sealed. That left me, a decade later, in a tattoo parlour in Verona, alone, living out of a backpack, confused, and with a suddenly solid understanding of what I needed to do. You don’t write unless you can’t not write. That is one of the few fundamental truths I know about it.

As much as I despised — and still do — every word I hammered out, nothing else felt like an option. Burning the boats works.

***

I was, like everyone, raised on the notion of writers as fickle creatures, simultaneously impoverished and living in luxury, lurking in shadowy studies, drinking amber liquids from cut glass bottles, and flicking through piles of dusty books.

Sometimes they sat and scattered cigarette ash on a typewriter for a few hours, but they never seemed to work per se. Their work just sprouted out of their lives.

But that kind of writer is a dying breed, if they ever existed in the first place.

The old way is getting trampled as journalism wilts and moves into a post-advertising era, as authors fight harder to earn Twitter followers to promote their books, leaving them with no time or energy for writing their damn books, as the meaning of a creative career shifts.

Most of us who pay the bills with words are practical creatures.

We meet a need, instead of creating a world. We do what needs doing, not what we feel like. We are part of a whole system surrounding us, not solitary creatures existing within our own spheres. We probably spend more time on email, meetings, admin, taxes, research, editing, and phone calls than we do on writing.

You can lament that shift — I did for a long time. But it’s evolution, not extinction. It’s arguably easier than ever to earn a living from writing, provided you’re open-minded about what that entails.

“You feel that if only you could make yourself sit down at a typewriter you could give shape to what seems merely a chain reaction of pointless disasters.” — Jay McInerney, Bright Lights Big City