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.
I sit in the odd space just after the holidays between fatigue and the first real yearning for spring. The mild weather we had earlier in the winter has turned its back, replaced by a relentless biting cold, snow and ice. After all the bustle of December, I admit to feeling a little relieved that my calendar has quieted down. Don't get me wrong. There is still plenty to keep my busy, but I find it is easier to say no this time of year. The colder weather of January offers me an excellent reason to keep the inner quiet I’ve settled into and curl up under a blanket by the fire with one of the many books that has been languishing in the reading stack by my favorite chair. That stack has grown again, joined by books received as gifts in the past weeks, a kind of winter solace held between their covers.
“Reading is working!” I told someone the other day.
I said it not so much as a joke, but as reminder. And maybe there was a little pang of guilt as I put my feet up.
For writers, reading is not just a pleasant way to unwind, it is one of the very real ways we feed ourselves. As keen observers, quiet time to steep in words and ideas is essential to our ability to process both what is inner and what is outer.
I’ll try to be systematic and get to those books in the order they have queued, yet I know I’ll end up kneeling next to my chair, poking at their spines and squinting at titles looking for just the right book for this mood and this moment.
Join me in honoring the pause that the bleak midwinter provides. Find your spot. Whether it is the one with the chair turned so you can look out on the snow falling, the couch cushion that remembers the unique curve of your backside, or that perfect nest of pillows on your bed, grab a book and get to work. Feed yourself. And a good scone never hurt either.
Last week I sent out a post to friends praising The Guardian which has a feature called The Saturday Poem. “Another reason to love The Guardian,” I rang out into the still dark of Saturday morning.
With roots as a poet in my first and earliest writing life, I find myself drawn to The Guardian for the news, yes, but also because my appetite for language is well fed, even far from the poetry page. There are not many places left where I can delight in words such as crag, scree or beck, and not many publications left that give space to writers who use those words or mention Wordsworth.
Words like these contain history. They are old words. They are good words. They are words poets know. In them are the roots of an older language. Our older earth selves.
“He clasps the crag with crooked hands,” Alfred Lord Tennyson writes in the opening line of his poem “The Eagle.” Ah, and we can see him, can’t we?
These are words with descriptive heft and a particular texture on the tongue. Without a photo snapped on a smartphone, these words immediately conjure a landscape for the mind. Or they should.
In this age of streaming, tweeting, and posting, language is too often asked to succumb to the grab for market share. First, it becomes a watery simplification, a verbal gruel in order to allow skimming and rapid digestion. Next, it becomes unknown. Notice I did not say unknowable, but unknown. Lost among bright icons and then cast out of the lexicon like an old shoe.
Of course there are many different genres and styles of writing. Not every word works in every situation. Yet if you approach language as a rich and varied landscape to be discovered, if you seek it out in your reading, you'll find your writing benefits.
Still not sure what a crag is? “Look it up,” my mother used to say, “and then it will be your word.” How frustratingly wise.