A few nights ago I had dinner and beers with a good friend of mine who's also a successful, well published writer, the kind of writer whose career a lot of us would look at with envy. I've been thinking about him and the things we talked about since then. Here goes.
When people learn that I'm a writer, I'll often hear things like, "I would love to write, but I don't have the time" or "It must be amazing to sit at your desk all day and write your book." Years ago, when my wife and I first moved in to our neighborhood, a woman down the street told me that whenever she passed our house while walking her dog she thought about me inside, sitting at my desk, working on a novel. She said this wistfully, as if it were the most peaceful life she could imagine.
Over the past six years I've published three novels and a bunch of stories and essays. My friend that I had dinner with last night has published more books and essays than I have, and his career has been a little longer and his work has sold better than mine. But our books and works-in-progress are not what we talk about when we meet for dinner and beers. We talk about the hustle. We talk about health insurance. We talk about how the non-writing work or teaching gigs or the conference workshop or the writing gig we have to take will limit our time at the desk. We talk about the calls we get from Hollywood people and whether or not we should believe them when they ask us to do work for free in the hope someone will buy it. We talk about invitations to speak at libraries, universities, and civic groups. How much will they pay us? How much can we expect? How much is it worth to be away from our family for ANOTHER night? Should we include driving time and flying time and sitting in the airport time? Should we be honest about how one hour of "work" requires 36 hours of travel and preparation? We talk about blurbs, both the asking for them and the being asked to provide them. We talk about the book business and how we feel about our agents and editors. We talk about the hope we have that the next book will be the one that helps us get to the point where we won't have to have the conversations that we keep having.
Most of my friends are writers, and very few of them are what would be considered well off. All of them hustle. All them bust their ass, both on their writing and on their careers. There are only a handful of writers in this country who don't have numerous side hustles. I can think of only two or three I know personally, but they still bust their asses at the desk and turn out great work.
I guess what I'm getting at is this: the book on the shelf is not the product of the writing life; in most cases it's the by-product of the writing life, which is often less about writing and more about trying to keep your and your family's life as stable as possible. A lot of jobs are hard, and a lot of people don't get paid what they deserve. But the tricky thing in this business is that you may work harder than you could ever imagine on a project you believe in, and then no one publishes your book or buys your script, and you don't get paid at all. So you teach. You edit. You write for magazines. You travel. You give keynotes. You spend weeks per year away from your family. You worry about insurance and your mortgage and your kids' tuition and car payments. And when you put your head on the pillow your mind goes to the place where your work lives hot and bright in your imagination, and you fall asleep hoping and praying that it will be the work that finally rewards the hustle of the life you've chosen. You think about sitting at the desk where you're working on your book and looking out the window. Your neighbor passes by with her dog, and you hope that one day she'll be 100% right in thinking, A writer lives there.