For aspiring writers who haven’t gone pro yet, or even pros struggling to make a living, I think every day we all face dozens of little choices that decide how serious we are to make this a career. It’s not like in the movies where the writer toils away, mails off her manuscript, then gets an acceptance letter and embarks on a whirlwind montage of Being a Real Writer Now.
It’s the quieter moments that make or break us, I think. The moments when everything external and internal is telling us to give up.
So this is a rather personal anecdote I don’t really talk about from a difficult time in my life.
Several years ago, I was in a really rough place. My first book had been published the year before, a second had been accepted, and I had short stories in edits for two anthologies. I also had been a housewife and split from my ex, leaving me homeless, jobless, with all of my savings gone to pay bills for the house I could no longer enter, and I’d lost nearly everything I owned that I couldn’t carry upon leaving. I had virtually no friends anymore, no family in the area, cut off from nearly everyone over a decade. I was deeply depressed to the point of being suicidal.
Aunt Judy, of course, welcomed me, and I ended up sleeping in her living room. And so began the process of trying to get a job when I had no recent work experience. I applied for everything I could conceivably do that I saw in the paper and at her insistence I broke down and visited Community Services about welfare, housing, and whatever else they could offer.
Much of that time is a blur to me–I don’t remember where the office was despite living in that town my whole life, how I got there, what the day was like beyond an impression of cold and gray and bleak. I don’t remember the interior off the office, just the feeling of sitting uncomfortably, my eyes itchy with threatening tears, my stomach twisting as I’d stopped eating weeks ago and everything made me sick, my anxiety through the roof, trying to smile when I mostly just wanted to be dead.
A nice but weary middle-aged lady who had likely been dealing with people in my situation–and worse–for a long time kindly laid things out. I was eligible for social assistance, though being that I was single it wouldn’t be enough to rent more than maybe a room in town. I was eligible for priority rent-geared-to-income housing for women given the situation I’d come from, but that was a year-long wait. She handed me photocopied pages of housing listings and rent and forms, highlighted what I was eligible for–I believe I still have all this somewhere in my filing cabinets.
And then came talk of work.
“I’m a writer,” I explained. “I’ve spent the last several years writing. I have a book published.” Writer, at that point, felt like only identity I had left, the thing I clung to that was me. Plus I had a book out–that tends to impress the layperson.
But not her. The lady had one of those closed-lip smiles that are placating but hollow. She asked about income from writing.
Of course, I only had about a year of royalties to refer to, and small press/epublishing with one weird YA paranormal book was not huge money. Before, I’d been proud of every dollar I earned, but sat there feeling woefully inadequate as I mumbled through my earnings and explanations of What Publishing Is Like.
And she was clearly unimpressed. So I explained that my publisher, a few weeks earlier, had offered me some work in PR writing press releases and that, and told her what small monthly income I’d be making there.
She politely pointed out that since none of this was income I could live on, maybe it’s time to admit writing was a hobby and set it aside. That after all these years of work, I didn’t really have anything to show for it. “You like books, maybe you could work at Chapters,” she offered.
As if “liking books” is the same thing as the ache of needing to create and tell stories.
Community Services deals in reality. I get that. I wasn’t special. This wasn’t the time or place to tell me to hold onto my aspirations, to the only thing I had left that gave me any meaning, any hope. The problem was that I had no money, nowhere to live, and no job experience–“maybe stop writing” wasn’t unreasonable for her to suggest.
And as I sat there, I grew dizzy. Part of me lifted out of my body and stared down at this scene, and a whole path opened before me–another life. One of working retail and stocking shelves, having coworkers–of crawling my way out of this hell with a difficult but normal, responsible path.
Trembling, once more in tears, I thanked her, gathered all the papers, and drifted out of the office. I’m sure I told Aunt Judy. I’m sure she argued that I should never, ever give up writing. I’ve blocked out so much of that time, I don’t remember. But regardless, faced with it at such a dark, vulnerable moment when there seemed no rational reason to keep doing something with no guarantee I’d ever see a return on investment, there was no question I would continue.
So that’s what I did. By summer, I was working as a cover artist and reading slush. I worked every job I could get a hold of in publishing, which gave me the experience to launch my own freelance business two and a half years ago to supplement my writing income.
I also wrote. And wrote. And wrote some more. Thirty-something books, to be exact-ish (look, you lose count over thirty). My income from writing fluctuates widely, but I’m currently having a good spell that will allow me to take next month off of freelancing to focus entirely on finishing writing a book.
It took a very long time. It was difficult to get anywhere. To go from making zero dollars a month to enough to live on is one of the hardest things most people will ever have to do. Poring myself into every book, trying to learn all I could about the craft of writing and publishing so that I could grab any opportunity that came my way–it’s not for the fainthearted.
I fought, every day, to get myself out of that emotional, mental, and financial hell. I had help, I had support, but in the end it started with me deciding I wasn’t going to give up. Because, truthfully, no one would care or blame me if I did. I had a handful of readers and that was it. I didn’t have all the cheerleaders I have now. I had no guarantees anything would come of it.
It was me and the stories I wanted to tell. Those stories never gave up on me and even in my darkest moments, when it made the most sense to quit, I wasn’t giving up on them.
Making a living from writing is hard. Especially when you’re poor. Especially when you feel like you’ve been wasting your life on a skill that has no use in the “real world”. It’s an uphill battle with weights lashed to your back during a hurricane while the ground is on fire, plus with added sharks strapped with lasers coming at you. You will feel like you should give up. People will tell you to give up. And maybe you should.
But “should” doesn’t mean you have to. That doesn’t mean you gotta do the reasonable, rational, responsible thing. Your odds of making a living at writing increase exponentially when you actually write books and keep pursuing it.
If I’d listened to the social worker, with her help I’m sure I could’ve gotten a “real” job. Maybe at Chapters. Maybe I would’ve stared at the spines on the shelves and grew resentful that other people were telling their stories while I set aside mine. Maybe I would’ve gone back to writing eventually a decade down the road.
But I didn’t. And I don’t regret for one second making the unreasonable, irrational, and irresponsible choice that I did.
You don’t know where you’ll be ten years from now. Maybe you’ll still be struggling. Maybe you won’t. But when you’re debating giving up, when you’re wondering what the point is, I want you to be able to refer back to this post and have an example of how it can be done. If Mama Bitchstress Dreamkiller can build an income out of nothing when People Who Knew Better told her to quit, there’s nothing to say you can’t too. And even on the rough days, when it’s just you and the story against everything seeming dire and hopeless…it’s enough.