Many of us who write have been asked if we are "working writers." Unless you have a steady byline or a contract with a major publisher, you may be sheepishly answering "no" after feeling stigmatized by someone blurting out, “Oh yeah, well how come I've never heard of you?” In fact, I'll guess more than one talented writer working a day job has not claimed his or her own writing life at all when asked at a cocktail party what they do rather than suffer the jeers of those who think artistic worth is only ever indicated by big market success.
We minimize our own stories. We’re not John Steinbeck or Joyce Carol Oates. "After all, there are huge demands on my time," we say somewhat apologetically. We may be writing while we are earning a living teaching, working in an office or waiting tables -- not to mention raising children and getting the toilet scrubbed. That teaching might not be happening in the more nurturing environment of the university, but the fast-paced, test-driven reality of the public high school classroom.
While we may fantasize about a wealthy patron who believes in our work and pays us to create, the reality is that many of us are working to support our own writing. Instead of being a cause for embarrassment, it should be a celebration of empowerment. After all, political pressures are rife in the history of patronage. With no patron, we are free to create outside the system according to our own unique vision and voice. The working writer has a long and successful history. Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams are famous examples. It does mean, however, that we have to guard our creative time even more fiercely. It means being willing to do whatever it takes because as writers, we can’t imagine not writing. It’s just not an option.
If you’re still finding your way, here’s some advice. Never say you don’t have time to write. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Find your routine, your habit or your time of day. (I, personally, am among those who favor writing in the morning while the mind is still fresh, nimble and open.) Find what works for you and stick to it. Know that life happens. If you lose your rhythm, forgive yourself as quickly as possible and work to get it back. Honor the time. Honor the craft.
Just as there are meditative moments in our day that fall outside a structured practice time -- the long line at the car wash on the first warm spring day is one, a friend just reminded me -- there is time for writing. Take it.
And if you are already committed to your writing, really showing up, it shouldn't matter that you’re doing something else to support yourself or your family. You are still writing.
So next time someone asks you if you are a working writer, say yes. Own your own story first.