Monday, September 29, 2008

How We Do It: Two Writers Talk Technique

My dear friend, the lovely and talented Caroline Leavitt, and I have decided to start a regular Monday trade-off of blogs based on questions we've gotten over the years. This week, we're both taking on the balancing act that most working writers face: how we make money and art, ideally without losing our minds.

Clea Simon and I have been talking a lot about how people perceive writers and the work we really do. Outside of a very lucky view who get gigantic advances or movie deals or who are married to people of means, most writers I know have to have other jobs. (Note: the key words are HAVE TO.) A lot teach and have jobs at universities. Most oil in freelance writing world. It isn't always easy.

So what do I do and how do I do it? I teach advanced novel writing through UCLA, a dream job if there ever was one. It's all on line, and I can do it at three in the morning if I want. I write press releases for a vanity publisher. I name things for a few namers. I have private clients whose manuscripts I mentor, and I sometimes do this work for agents. I write children's books for two different companies and I ghostwrite. I write a book column for The Boston Globe and I'm the books editor for Dame Magazine and I am a book critic for People.

I love all my jobs. I really do. They're all varied and interesting and creative and I get to do some good and give back. But most importantly, I can make my own hours. I can work at home right across the hall from my honey. Is there a downside?

Well, my husband, a writer and editor at Jazz Times, works the same way I do, which means we pay for our own health insurance, which is the price of a small country. We know all too well the ebb and flow of freelance jobs (My husband lost one big one the day he told his boss I was pregnant.) We have a son and we worry about money all the time.

it's hard sometimes, too, to remember that the writing has to come first. You might have twelve things due that day, but you have to get in those thousand words. Or at least, in an emergency, 500.

But this kind of life is really lucky. It's a gift. i wouldn't trade it and it suits me. The one time I held a fulltime job, at the now defunct and odious Columbia House Video Club, I had anxiety attacks. I was yelled at for not having "a marketing personality." I was told that everyone knew I was a novelist and there fore I must be thinking more about plot than videos, and so every mistake would be blamed on me. But I was fast and smart and good at my job and I knew they would never fire me. I left on my own, saying that while I was physically able to do the job, I was spiritually unable. I never looked back! And I never, never, ever wake up with that rock in the pit of my stomach anymore.

Thanks, Caroline! You can read my thoughts on Caroline's blog.


Jeff Lyons said...

C & C:

What a great post. I too am fascinated by process and how writers do what they (we) do. It’s frightening how easy it is not to write and to do other things instead: phone calls, chatting (skype), email, “research”, sleep, etc. I do a ton of editorial work. Often multiple daily deadlines (Caroline, you know of what I speak), and while I curse it sometimes, the truth is I’m blessed. Like Caroline, I work at home, the work has no demand other than that it be done on time, and I’m damn good at it so I’m not afraid of being cut loose, even in this competitive environment. And while I work mostly in the movie/film world the dream can sometimes get squeezed aside by the marginal financial existence that has become my life. And yet, I am blessed. I may not have the physical abundance I want, but I have the function of what I want: doing the work I want, freedom, freedom, freedom, and creative satisfaction, among other things. Form does follow function, so I’m doing something right. It’s kind of nice to know there are lots of other writers out there grappling with the same visceral issues around productivity and just plain survival. Not to glorify struggle--screw that. It’s just that that no matter how hard it gets, hearing other’s determination to make that 500 or 1000 word limit, no matter what, is truly inspiring.

Pageturners said...

A brilliant post. And it gives that one golden rule: the 1,000 words of fiction come first.

Clea Simon said...

Thanks for reading! We'll be talking more about that thousand-word rule next Monday, too.