Crafting Your Writer Lie… I Mean, Life

There’s a fair sized list of questions that all writers dread being asked. (Have I heard of you? Is your book out yet?) All of them – or at least close to it – are lead into by one ice-breaker question that, for me, tops the list.

What do you do for a living?

Most writers don’t make enough money from their writing to support themselves, let alone a family; something we’re all painfully aware of on a day to day basis, and even moreso when someone puts us in the awkward position of needing to decide how much that harsh reality creeps into our answer.

When I first started Crimson Melodies Publishing, I knew what it looked like from the outside. A website. A handful of books with positive, if only a few, reviews. An editor with limited credentials. When people would press with more questions, honestly curious, I usually defaulted into talking about my college schooling and the fact that I graduated with a bachelors in 2007, just as the recession was winding up into full swing. This would flip the conversation into something totally different, and onto ground that felt more comfortable since it wasn’t full of potential half-truths. I could talk about how I got into editing, rather than what my profession looked like from the inside.

In short, I was afraid to discuss my job, the company I was going to make legitimate, or the reasons why, for however much I stumbled into this career, I fully intended to stick with it no matter how far I was from making a living wage.

That was seven years ago. What I say now is very, very different. And when I don’t want to give the full run-down of Crimson Melodies being a registered LLC, the writing seminars I give to local writers, or about forming the Philadelphia Free Writers Association with past and present NaNoWriMo volunteers to coordinate the free writing workshops we’ve hosted every year for four years running, I just say I’m a freelance editor who’s booked solid for the next few months.

Which means I have it easy. I know writers who have had success in small talk settings by bringing up writing deadlines, book release dates, rewrites demanded by editors, and their struggle to connect with readers in a way that keeps them hungry for the next book. But even those writers, if you ask them, will admit how many years its taken them to own their profession, and not shy away from responding to awkward questions. Even more importantly, of learning when it’s not worth responding, if the other party of the conversation seems judgmental or hostile to the idea of writing being a career.

Your writer’s life is just that. Yours. It’s the life of a creative, which is often perceived to be directly at odds with what people have been taught is the responsible, adult thing to do. Sometimes it’s just the exotic idea of it that makes other people curious enough to border on rude, or to look down at the idea because they think of it as an immature or unrealistic pursuit. Most of those people who I’ve met have been strangers, thankfully, but for some they might be family members or close friends. It can be difficult to know what to say to them – how to proverbially keep them off your back – while you pursue your dreams, or your passion, or whatever it is you call your drive to be a writer.

But you can figure it out. We are creatives, and we shape reality in the words in our books. If we need to sprinkle a little pixie dust onto our answers for people who ask us what we do for a living, we’re some of the best people to be able to do it. And even if what you mostly make small talk about is your day job – the thing that keeps the lights on – just remind yourself that you are doing something that other people only talk about doing. You’re living it.

So say as much or as little as you want to, to whoever you decide is worth telling. And down the line, whether you have manuscripts tucked in drawers or become a bestseller, just know that putting words on paper is more than enough reason to hold you head up and say, “I’m a writer.”

Or, take the advice of a master of the craft who knows we prefer staying indoors. Though you should definitely always keep your head up, figuratively and literally. Pride and ergonomics.

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman

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