In the October newsletter, Dawn asked, "Are you writing what you thought you would be? Does the reality of your writing life live up to the dream? Is it better?" (And of course there is the implied corollary: Is it worse?)
I suspect that a great many of us started out with the dream of becoming novelists or poets or short story writers, but have ended up doing something very different -- at least for now! Why? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Or is it, perhaps, a bit of both?
One of the most common reasons for ending up on a path that isn't quite what one dreamed of is what I call "The Siren Song of 'Doing What You Love'." Years ago, someone wrote a book titled Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow. I know very few writers who haven't dreamed of chucking that boring day job for a writing career -- and I know quite a few who actually have. What could be more rewarding than earning a living, or at least an income, doing something you actually enjoy, something that taps your creative abilities?
I made this decision in 1996. Up to that point, I had freelanced "off and on," which means, "when I felt like it." But in 1996 my husband got into a conversation with a gentleman who sold Amway -- or rather, who sold people on the idea of selling Amway. It was clear that we needed to bring in a second income, but after leafing through the catalogs and sitting through a couple of rah-rah motivational videos, I concluded that if I had to do something to bring in more money, it sure wasn't going to be selling soap. So out came the Writer's Market and out went a stack of query letters, and within a year I had regular assignments (and regular checks) coming.
Along the way, however, I discovered what I'm sure just about every other freelance writer has discovered: The money will follow only if you learn how to follow the money. Doing what you love is only half the equation; you also have to do what your customers love. For some, that means nonfiction articles for periodicals; for others, it means business and technical writing, editing, ghostwriting, indexing, copywriting, and a host of other activities to pay the bills.
And this is where one's path as a working writer begins to diverge from the path of one's dreams. I have yet to hear a writer sigh, "Ever since I was a little girl, I've dreamed of indexing computer manuals!" The primary pitfall of "doing what you love" for a living is that, eventually, what you love can become "just another job." The more dependent you are on your writing income, the more focused you will become on projects that bring in that income, to the exclusion of any sort of writing that doesn't. Consequently, those other projects -- the novel, the poetry, the personal essays -- are constantly shoved to the proverbial back burner, waiting for the day when you can "afford" to work on them. And tough as it is to find time to write when you do something else for a living, it's even tougher when writing is your day job!
Don't get me wrong: Writing is a rewarding, exciting career. As long as I have to work at all, I wouldn't want to do anything else. And becoming a freelancer offers a number of benefits that go far beyond money. Freelancing teaches you how the writing world works -- that acceptance and rejection aren't, for example, mere whimsical events that depend on which side of the bed an editor rolled out of that morning. You learn what sells and what doesn't, and why, and when something doesn't sell, you learn to spend less time moaning and more time hitting the keyboard. You learn that one can't afford to wait for the "muse" to drop by before you start to write -- and that, even if you don't feel the least bit inspired, you can write whenever you force yourself to sit down at that keyboard, and write well. You learn not only how to meet deadlines but how to set your own. Over time, you begin to build a name for yourself, and a portfolio -- both of which can be helpful when you are ready to start that novel. And best of all, you see your writing skill improve, month by month and piece by piece. In short, you learn professionalism, discipline and skill -- three essential ingredients for the writing life. When you do decide that it's time to start following your dreams, those ingredients won't guarantee success -- but the lack of them will almost certainly guarantee failure!
Ah, yes, about those dreams... It is nice to get paid for doing something you love, but I believe that's often only one reason why many of us end up on the freelancing path rather than the "dream" path -- at least for a time. The other reason is that, when we stand at the moment of choice -- the moment when we are saying to ourselves and the world, "I am going to become a writer!" -- we may realize that while we do have a dream, we may not be quite ready to follow that dream. And this, too, may be for several reasons. It may be that we are not ready emotionally -- or it may be that we are not ready professionally.
While 1996 was the year I became a full-time freelancer, 1995 was the year in which I finally finished the novel that I had been working on, off and on, since high school. It was a grand fantasy that had everything: Magic, dragons, princes, romance. Unfortunately, as I discovered well before I finished the last page, what it didn't have was a coherent plot. I also discovered what I didn't have: The ability, at that point in my life, to do that story justice. And so I had to decide whether to keep on struggling with a book that wasn't working and that I didn't have the skill to complete -- or do something else.
And this, too, I believe, is an important decision to make. Going for the dream when you're not ready for the dream is a good way to kill that dream altogether. I have seen the frustration of writers who have struggled for years to perfect that all-important dream novel, experiencing failure after failure, rejection after rejection. Choosing a different path even temporarily, such a freelancing, offers several advantages.
First, as I said above, it gives a writer a chance to hone those writing skills and learn the business. But it also gives the writer a chance to experience failure in manageable doses. If I spend a week preparing an article for Dog Walker's Monthly, and it's rejected, I can cope. I haven't invested a great deal of time or emotion into that particular project. The editor may have killed an article, but he hasn't killed my hope. If, however, I spend ten years laboring over my dream novel and it is rejected, I have lost a great deal more. If it is rejected repeatedly, no matter what I do to refine it, eventually I am likely to lose hope. One of the quickest ways to kill a dream is to chase it before you're able to catch it.
However, another way to kill a dream is to never chase it at all. And that's the potential risk of choosing another path. "Doing something different" is a very good idea if one is not yet sufficiently skilled to follow the dream. But what if skill isn't what's lacking? One reason I believe many of us continue to pursue the freelance path is precisely because it hurts so much less to have those small, unimportant pieces fail. A dream can never fail if it is never put to the test -- but it can never succeed, either.
So, if you find yourself on a writing path that is somewhat different from the path of your dreams, is this a good thing or a not-so-good thing? Since the answer could be either or even both, the key is to determine which it is for you, at this time (because the answer can and will change over time). Here are some questions that can help you find that answer:
As the year draws to a close, you can be sure I'll be taking a look
at these questions myself!
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