Wrong Lifestyle

After I gave a talk about the writer's life to a group of writers and aspiring writers, a smartly dressed woman in her early thirties came up to me and said that she had always wanted to be a writer. She said she had several good ideas for novels that she would love to write, but she had a problem and thought maybe I could give her some advice.

Every day she commuted an hour and a half to work and back, routinely worked nine- and ten-hour days, and did most of the housework. The only time she could get to her typewriter was on the weekends, and then her husband always wanted to go somewhere because he, too, worked hard during the week.

I asked her whether she had any kids.

No, she didn't, she replied.

I suggested she quit her job.

She smiled sheepishly and said she couldn't do that. They had a big mortgage and her husband liked to travel, so they were making payments on a Winnebago. Her husband would kill her, she said, if she quit her job.

I said she should get another husband.

She blinked with astonishment. She said I was kidding, of course.

I was not kidding, I said. There are a lot of husbands out there—find one who will support your writing.

She walked away, muttering that I was a lunatic.

I may be, but that doesn't change the facts. You can't become a writer if you surround yourself with no-sayers. And if your spouse or live-in lover or roommate is not supporting you, you will have to change either their minds or your living arrangements.

Your ship won't make much headway dragging an anchor.

If you want to change the people you live with, you will probably have to play what I call the writer's Big Scene. You bring your significant others together and tell them that you've made the decision to become a writer, a damn good one, and in order to become a damn good writer you will need their assistance and support. This means that you will be locked away in your cubbyhole, study, basement, back of the garage, or whatever for long hours at a time and you can't be disturbed. You will be going to writers' groups and taking classes, you'll be reading a lot more, and when the inevitable rejection letters come, you will need a good kick in the rump to get going again.

Playing the Big Scene impresses upon your significant others how important this is to you, how failure at this would be a terrible blow, and that they should keep their opinions of why you should not embark upon your career to themselves. You are going into this with total commitment and you're not interested in any gloom and doom predictions. And that's final.

Sometimes the Big Scene gets results, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it takes two or three Big Scenes for them to catch on to how serious you are.

Of course you will have to demonstrate your commitment by not allowing yourself to be distracted by a good program on television, neighbors who just stopped by, or a nice spring day calling you into the garden to plant tomatoes. The time you've scheduled for writing is for writing, and that's that.

I don't answer my telephone when I'm writing, I let my machine do it, even if it's my agent calling with good news. I don't answer my doorbell. If it's the Jehovah's Witnesses, they will just have to come by some other time to save my immortal soul. Right now I'm writing.

A writer must be prepared to say, "I can't talk right now, I'm writing," to his or her sister or brother or mother or father or kids. If they get miffed—well, they'll have to get over it. You have to impress upon people that when you're off in your cubbyhole you are gone. You aren't even on the planet and you can't be located.

You say you don't want to offend anyone? You say you couldn't be rude? You say you have to be available to your friends and loved ones when they need you? You say your sister is having marital problems and wants to cry on your shoulder? Your best friend needs help with his income tax? Your kids want you to show them how to tie fishing lures or bake cookies or hook up the VCR?

You cannot soar with the eagles if you're wasting your precious time gaggling with the geese. Do you want to be a writer or don't you? If you are going to be a writer, the only kind worth being is a damn good one, and the only way to be a damn good one is to, by God, give it everything you've got.

Giving it everything you've got means you will have to give it a lot of your time. To give it a lot of your time, you will have to not give a lot of your time to other things, like jobs, friends, family, and cleaning toilet bowls.

Giving time to one's profession makes perfect sense to people who want to become surgeons. A surgeon, during his or her training, is never home. A surgeon in training will often spend forty-eight or more hours straight at the hospital—attending classes, going on rounds, cutting open a lot of people and sewing them back up again.

An aspiring musician may practice ten or twelve hours a day for years before achieving a professional level of competency. An Olympic athlete, a ballet dancer, a stage magician all have to trade a huge slice of their time on earth for professional competency. Becoming a damn good novelist takes as much time, effort, and energy as becoming a damn good gymnast, a damn good figure skater, a damn good dentist, a damn good hired assassin, a damn good anything.

To become a damn good novelist you will have to put in your time writing. And that means that you won't be doing things other people do because you won't have time for them.

But what if you've got kids and responsibilities and the like? Okay, you will have to have a job, a secondary career, but it cannot be the center of your life. The writing will have to be the center of your life. Faulkner has been quoted as having said: "Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency ... to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies."

I have personally witnessed hundreds of writers fail because they were not able to organize their lives around writing. The writing is put off and put off and put off.

Why is this?

Here's a guess: Writing is painful. Writing is hard work. Writing is sometimes a bitch. To be a damn good novelist you will have to write with pain, you will have to work hard, and you will have to do it despite the fact that it's a bitch.

And through it all you will have to grow. A regular program of growth should be included in any writer's lifestyle.

True, you will grow as a novelist if all you do is get older.

You will grow as a novelist if all you do is write.

But to become a damn good novelist, the best you can become, you'll have to do more than just live and write. You will have to study, too. You'll have to read and study the masters of your particular genre.

A novelist, of course, does not read novels just for enjoyment. A novelist reads with a writer's eye, looking at how these books are constructed, how the characters are motivated, how the conflicts develop, how the characters grow, how the climaxes come off. If novel writing is your game, you will study novels the way a student architect looks at buildings—not only at the veneer, but also at the beams and crossbeams, the plumbing, the wiring, and the foundation.

A damn good novelist in the making will study human beings and the minutiae of their lives: how they walk and talk, what they hope and dream, and what they sprinkle on their breakfast cereal. A novelist is a collector of tidbits that can be used later in the making up of characters. Some writers keep notebooks every day, jotting down every bit of detail they can about the people around them: their dress, their mannerisms, the way they shrug their shoulders, and the way their dandruff falls on their shoulders.

Another kind of study that ought to be integrated into a writer's everyday life is the study of craft. One of the great blessings of this profession is that it is forever opening itself up, an endless horizon of discovery. As you grow in your craft, through study you will find there is ever more to learn—about dramatic effects, about style, about word usage, and so on. There is no end to it. You can just keep learning for as long as you live, which is really wonderful.

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