It’s been nine years since I graduated from writing school. Eight since I first began working as a writing coach and copywriter; six since I decided I wanted to write novels.
All this time, I’ve been trying to find the balance between (financial) success and sheer passion, between professional praise and light-hearted hobbyism. All this time I’ve been asking the same question. How can I live a writing life?
For me, this is a life in which I
– have enough time and financial stability for writing;
– am in touch with the fulfilling qualities writing holds for me;
– enjoy a certain amount of ‘success’ and validation.
It took me quite some time, but I think I’m getting there. And you can, too!
All you need to do is ask yourself these two essential questions:
Why do I write? And what do I want to get out of it?
Earlier, I came across an old, but very beautiful post by author C.S. Lakin. She writes:
I think it’s a good thing to take a look at why you write. […] Why? Because once you understand your need to write and what is driving it, you can honestly and practically both assess and plan how you will handle your writing life.
I believe the problem most authors have (and this applies to numerous multipublished authors who have enjoyed good sales of their novels) is they have a standard or measure of success that they’ve set on the finish line and they’re running toward that, eyes focused on that alone, and until they get “there,” they can’t really feel any deep or lasting satisfaction, sense of fulfillment or accomplishment, or self-worth.
If you have moments like this, I want to encourage you, because I think there are ways we can readjust our thinking and truly find joy in whatever place we’re in, as far as our career goes.
I think Lakin touches on the full depth of what I mean with ‘writing life’.
First up is motivation (=why do you write): is it enough for you to simply ‘write for the desk drawer’, or are you motivated by a measure of ‘success’? And then of course we have the second component: how do you define success (=what do you want out of writing)?
Once you know these two things, you can build your writing life around them, so that you will not only stay motivated, but also be successful. At least in your own eyes.
(and really, that’s all that matters)
For me, the ‘motivation’ part has been obscured for a long time by what I thought the world was expecting of me. When I finished writing school, I couldn’t think of any way to be a ‘successful’ fiction writer, other than to be a professional one – that is, to make a living out of it. I felt that my education ‘framed’ me to be this: a successful professional writer…or a failure.
Needless to say, this put a lot of pressure on me (all my own projection, I blame no one). So much that it choked me until I couldn’t write at all. ‘Writing’ had become ‘trying not to fail’.
Then I found a surprisingly simple way around this; I made writing a hobby. I took all prestige and need out of it, until I was left with the pure writing itself. Specifically I did this by creating an English alter ego, someone who had nothing to do with me…or with myego:). This freed up my creativity and allowed me to simply ENJOY myself.
Finally I was in touch with my true motivation: I write because I feel alive when I do it. I feel useful, happy and fulfilled. No amount of ‘outward’ success could compete with that.
Framing the writing
So. What does a person with an important, life-saving hobby need?
Time. Space. Means.
Once I knew I wanted to write merely ‘for myself’, AND spend a lot of time doing it, I was able to organize my life around that. I chose to work freelance as a writing coach and copywriter, so that I was my own boss and could generate an appropriate income for myself. I also chose to work relatively few hours, leaving a lot of hours to write. To feel alive. This does mean that I’m sacrificing being rich and having a whirl-wind career. But c’mon – compared to building a framework around feeling alive…what does it matter?
Projecting ambition elsewhere
Of course, like everyone else, I still crave recognition for what I do. I need to feel validated in my work. If I write fiction purely for myself…where is the recognition going to come from?
For me, the solution was to project that ambition elsewhere. I’m pretty successful as a writing coach and copywriter. Almost every week I get told by clients that I’ve helped them, that my writing talent has made a difference in their lives. Because I’m getting a lot of recognition for my professional writing (/coaching) work, I’m able to sustain myself with little or no outside approval in my fiction writing.
I don’t think this balance will be the same forever. Once I finish my novel, I’m sure the frame will need some adjustment, and, like all debuting authors, I will experience new insecurities and motivation crises.
But for now, this keeps me happy. And, not unimportantly – sane.
How to construct your own frame
I think the most important thing is to be really, really honest with yourself. There is nothing wrong with being very ambitious and wanting the ‘classic’ definition of success: fame, money, praise from literary critics. But, as Lakin puts it:
Is it wrong to want that? Of course not. But like wanting anything that is difficult to attain—the question is, how obsessed with this dream are you? What will happen if you don’t attain it? Will you be satisfied ever with less, and what does that place look like for you?
‘Constructing your writing life’ does not mean settling for less. It does mean getting real. Taking responsibility for the things you love most and the way you make room for them. Becoming authentic in the way you frame your life, the way you define ‘successful writing’.
And finally, it means finding the inner strength to navigate with that compass, no matter what other people think. You have that power to define whether or not you think you’re a success – don’t let anyone take it from you.