The Worst Job You’ll Ever Have
Creative writing is a job, just like any other, except that unlike your “regular” job, it pays infrequently (and usually not very much, when it does). For the few who can afford to launch themselves, those very rare writers who have money and a room of their own (thanks, Virginia), the money coming in from it is of less importance than the writing itself. For the rest of us, because even if later, you’re able to vault yourself into a successful free-lance career, or one where writing will be at least part of your job description, the money that comes from writing fiction, poetry, or essays can’t be the thing of greatest importance. That’s how, I think, that writing ends up being a hobby, rather than a vocation, a calling, or a passion.
The payoff isn’t immediate, and it won’t usually be enough to do much more than help out with the groceries from time to time, or to treat you to a dinner out. The payoff of seeing your writing in print, however, is something that pays dividends that aren’t tangible, but over time, come to be invaluable. Just as each rejection can be a crushing blow—whether it’s the first or the 7,765th—so can each acceptance be a building block of confidence that is absolutely critical to building a career as a writer.
“How do you get published?”
It’s simple, really. I write. I send it out. I wait. Like losing weight, there’s no magic formula. The answer is one that other writers intuitively know, but don’t want to hear or believe, because it takes work, persistence, and the ability to hear “No”, over and over again. It’s not because I’m lucky. It’s not because I’m extraordinarily talented—I personally know many writers whose work I consider technically and stylistically superior to mine, who have less publications than I do. It’s because I finish my work and I send it out. If you don’t believe me, I’ve got an entire folder in my e-mail devoted to rejections. Before the advent of the internet, I sent out my work by mail. I’ve kept a thick, fat folder of all the SASE rejections I got, as a reminder of how far I’ve come.
“I could never be as successful as you.”
First of all, who says I’m successful? What standard are you using to define that? I’m not a household name, I live paycheck to paycheck, and I don’t have an agent or a publishing contract. 98% of my body of published work was either unpaid, or paid in contributor copies of the issue my work was printed in. The pieces that paid have been few and far between. But if the list of publication credits is what you’re using to base “success” on—then no, as long as you keep up the attitude of “I can’t do it”, you’re not going to be as successful as me. But more to the point, you’re not going to be as successful as you can be. One of the most motivational things I’ve ever read was written by Doc Hammer in a blog post he wrote about oil painting. If you disregard the painting specific tips, the main thrust of the essay is relevant to artists of all kinds. In the essay, he writes, “The next time you are telling yourself ‘I can’t’, you might want to try telling yourself, ‘I must’.”
“Writing is just my hobby; I can never make it a career.”
Then what are you complaining about? If all you’re willing to devote to it is the time it takes to have a hobby, then enjoy it as a hobby. Otherwise, you’re just being lazy in assuming that you can half-ass your time and devotion to something and expect it to pay off as though you’re approaching it professionally. Career writers will all tell you—it sucks more often than it doesn’t, it’s not as fun as everyone assumes it is, and hey! guess what? More often than not, no one, and I mean no one, is going to take what you do seriously—even if and when you’re lucky enough to publish a book.
“I can’t write if I’m not inspired.”
Good thing you don’t have deadlines, then.
“All I get are rejections.”
Congratulations, you’re a “real” writer. I got nothing but rejections for seven years (2001-2008) before I started to have any kind of success publishing. If you let the rejections stop you from writing and submitting, you’re never going to achieve the success you’re reaching for and think you deserve—and could possibly attain. All you’ll end up doing is thinking about how sour the grapes must be that you see other writers eating. And in the process, alienating them because with each of your excuses, you are dismissing the very real hard work and bravery they have shown with their work. Nothing is more frustrating than devoting time and effort to an endeavor that pays off, and having others tell you that it’s no big deal.
“I don’t want to be published in <Minor Literary Journal X>, because no one will take my work seriously if I get published there.”
<Minor Literary Journal X> is running a publication. However small or insignificant you may find it, it takes time to keep track of submissions, read them, make decisions, contact authors, and lay out a publication. If it’s so easy, why aren’t you doing it? It is also good to keep in mind that there was a time when Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Tin House, Glimmer Train, Zoetrope and McSweeny’s were all upstart publications that no one took seriously, either. Take your publications where you find them, and remember that anything that builds your presence as an author is a positive thing to embrace. After all, you never know who’s reading. Each publication you add to your CV, however minor, is something that can make you stand apart from other CVs that land on the desk of an agent. Over time, these “minor publications” build into a solid list, a formidable body of published work that shows an agent that many editors have found your work to have merit—which, in strictly commercial terms, means you’re marketable.
Expect to have your friends and family not exactly falling all over themselves to read your work—after all, most people aren’t going to take it seriously. But if this is your calling, your passion, and you want to make it your vocation, you will have to. Set aside devoted times to write—and know that more often than not, that’s when you won’t have anything to say. For those times, invest in style books or technique guides and use prompts to write from. Even if it’s not your magnum opus, it might be something you can revisit later and get a solid piece of work from. Expect that when you’re exhausted or involved in something else that requires your attention, you’ll be flooded with ideas. Be prepared. Carry multiple notebooks, and take them everywhere. Bank on nights of lost sleep when you’re on a hot streak. Check regularly—weekly, if not daily—for open calls to writers. Submit often. If your work isn’t out there, you’ll never know. Be persistent, even as the rejections flood in. My joke is that for every 10 things I send out, I get 11 rejections. It’s only funny because it’s true. Know that statistically, if you’re incredibly successful, you will have 10% of what you send out accepted. That means that to have at least 1 piece accepted, in the best-case scenario, you’d have to have sent out at least 10 things. Your odds improve as you send out more work. Be aware that your favorite pieces are generally the ones that go unpublished the longest, while lesser pieces that you don’t love as much can get snapped up quicker than you’d have thought possible. It’s all a gigantic game of odds, and if you’re not willing to play, don’t be upset that you don’t win it.
Creative writing is the worst job you’ll ever have. But if you’re meant to do it, you will. Here’s where to start learning to be brave: