Picture this scene. I’m in my twenties, deep in the middle of my very first novel, working at home, not answering the phone or emails or instant messages, when the doorbell rings. I’m wired, excited and nauseous, all at the same time, because I’ve been working so hard and I feel so completely over my head. I go to answer the door, thinking it might be a FedEx package I’m expecting. Instead, it’s a relative. She’s been out shopping and decided to take a break. “Thought I’d drop by!” she says, and I blink at her. “I’m thrilled to see you, but I’m working, “ I explain. I glance at my watch, not wanting to be rude, doing some quick, desperate math. “Can I meet you for lunch? In about an hour? I’d love to see you then.”
She looks at me askance. She points out my mug of tea and the muffin by my desk, the music that’s on. “Working?” she looks around the house. “You’re at home writing! You’re not working!”
I try to explain that I’m on deadline, that while I’d love to see her, I really have to push on with my work. She shakes her head and then she notices my misery. “Oh honey, I get it,” she says. “It’s like when I’m in the middle of watching my soap operas. I don’t like to be interrupted either.”
Sigh. This year, I would so dearly love for people to understand better what it is that writers really do, what our life really is like. I’ve taught high school where my students all thought writers had beach houses and lots of lovers. I’ve been approached at parties by people who have a great idea for a book and they are going to jot it down on weekends because unlike me, “they have to work for a living.” And of course, I’ve had people tell me, casually, that as soon as they have enough money in the bank, they’re going to write that book they’ve always had in them because what could be more lovely than sitting around making up things? “That’s the easy life,” someone told me. “It’s so glamorous.”
As a writer, I work every day. If I take a two-hour lunch, I’m still working, because some part of me is still thinking about my novel. It may look like I have the life of Reilly, sitting in my cozy office, music blasting, at my computer. It may look as if I’m asleep because I’m not moving, I haven’t typed in hours, but what is going on might be the exquisite agony of trying to figure out my story, trying to give my characters some breath so they come alive on the page. I may seem placid, but I’m eating myself up with worry, self-doubt and questions. Is the work any good? Will it sell? Even it does sell, will people buy it and read it? And will I ever write another book after this one? And what freelance work do I have to take on so I can help pay our bills and continue to write?
You may think I’m lucky not to have a boss telling me what to do, but I still work with people—my agent and my editor and the other writers who read my work and tear it apart for me so I can put it together in the right way, and the criticism is often brutal, which it has to be, in order for me to get better. In a sense, I work with readers, too. We writers work really, really hard, for endless hours, sometimes for years on a single project without ever knowing if it is going to be a success. And because I don’t have paid health benefits (my husband is also a writer and editor), we have to deal with paying for our own health insurance, which as any freelancer knows, is the cost of a small country.
If you really want to be a writer, I’m delighted! I’m willing to help you with support and encouragement. I’ll show you the ropes and be a willing listening and your biggest champion. I’d absolutely love to have you as company. But please, don’t think of my profession as an easy retirement dream or the way to get rich and famous. We writers don’t go into this for those reasons, and besides, we’re acutely aware of how few do get those perks. We write because we have to.
So, the next time you see a writer at a café or at a party, instead of imagining the beach houses and the fame, imagine how little we often work for, imagine the long hours and the punishing self-doubt, and the toughness of our work. And then imagine how much we love it. How we do it not for any of the reasons you might think, but because we have to. Because it’s who we are.