Three years ago, against the advice of many, I left a budding career in journalism to build my own freelance copywriting and editing business. Since then, I’ve fielded a regular stream of emails from and about people searching for a way to make writing pay. The frustration is palpable in these emails as well as in conversations I have with friends and strangers every day. So, too, is the hope. Hope that somehow, some way, a natural gift for words might still be fashioned into a viable life calling.
Most of the emails go something like this:
“Hi, Erin! My brother/friend/co-worker needs some help. He’s always been a great writer. His teachers told him so. We tell him so. But he’s lost. He hated his last three jobs and now he’s unemployed. Is there any way he can turn his talent for words into a career? Do you have any advice for him?”
Yes. Yes, I do. And I am currently in the process of fashioning what I’ve learned into a short guide for newbie writers. The first hit is free! I’d love to know what you think.
Tough Truth for Writers #1: You are not Don Quixote.
You remember Don Quixote, don’t you? That eager, nebbish hero of classic Spanish literature who strikes out into the world, sword and lance in hand, naively seeking the life of adventure he’s read about in books?
You, Dear Reader, aren’t he. Matter of fact, neither am I. And neither is the guy in your writing group who just scored his first book deal, or your sister’s friend who made a zillion dollars off ads on her Quirky Mommy Blog. I’m not trying to be harsh. In fact, I don’t even blame you, Dear Writer, for hoping that maybe we were Don Quixote. (It would certainly explain our rumpled clothes and the wheezing chariots we drive ourselves around town in.) After all, every culture since the dawn of the alphabet has romanticized Itinerant Dreamy Creative Types.
Every good movie has one, and so does every interesting family or group of friends, and we love them for their wandering ways. We let them sleep on our couches. We sometimes lend them cash. We fawn over their adventuring spirits and invite them to all our dinner parties because they’ve got, like, the best travel stories ever.
But as you may have noticed, especially if you’ve tried to nominate yourself for the position, what our culture doesn’t do is pay anyone to be an Itinerant Dreamy Creative Type.
Even IDCTs with multiple writing degrees and a good measure of natural talent are unlikely to find anyone waiting at the foot of their bed each morning, offering up wads of cash in exchange for the first rights to trumpet their eloquent observations far and wide. Even when those observations are really, really fantastically crafted.
We are not Don Quixote. But like him, because we are writers, we feel irresistibly, cosmically compelled to seek out strange and interesting fodder for our literary reveries, to chase shadows and inspirations to the far corners of the earth, or, at least, the far corners of our minds. So, like his, our paths will inevitably wind and twist. And this is where the trouble can start.
For many would-be-writers, the first part of the story goes something like this: Your sister wanted to be a lawyer. So she majored in political science, earned admission to a respectable law school, took out her nose ring, wrote for the law review, and eventually landed a cushy government job. Your best friend wanted to be a legal secretary. So she scored a filing job at a downtown law firm straight out of undergrad and worked her way up over the course of half-a-decade, taking advantage of free on-the-job training and saying “Yes” to every promotion until, voila! Legal secretary at 26.
And then there was you. Maybe you majored in English, communications, or creative writing, or at least you fantasized about it during those interminable, soul-sucking chemistry labs. Maybe you stayed up all night reading Raymond Carver short story collections and writing bad fiction that became, over time, slightly less bad and maybe even eked its way into the realm of good. Maybe you wrote a column for the college paper and thrilled at the rush of being published – and read, and discussed – by your peers. Then, graduation. By default (and the need to, like, eat every day) maybe you ended up working in an office doing corporate communications or managerial work or some other thing that was only tangentially, if at all, related to the written word.
Or maybe you reformed your writerly ways earlier on: you penned poetry and plays all through high school, then opted for the fast-track into early adulthood and became a teacher or a cop or a construction worker or a cocktail waitress. Now you’ve woken up five or 10 or 20 years older and you are longing to reconnect with your youthful love for the quiet craft. You mightn’t have written, I mean really written, anything in years, but the itch is back and worse than ever. It’s not too surprising. If you’ve got writing in the marrow of your bones, it will always call you back, eventually.
Or maybe you are just starting out your career, and determined to give the writing biz a shot, because you like working with words and you figure it’s worth it at least to try.
Whatever your story, and whether or not you’ve ever even read Don Quixote, I’ve got some good news. The happy reverse of this rusty coin is that you wouldn’t probably want to be Don Quixote anyway, even if you could. Because he has so little horse sense that he mistakes peasants for princesses, windmills for giants, and poisonous draughts for healing elixirs. Because he’s so wrapped up in reveries that life ends up happening to him and not for him, and that’s no way for a creative person to live.