Friday, 4 January 2013

What's Your Zig-a-Zig Ahh?

By which I mean, 'So tell me what you want, what you really, really want...'

(Dear, sweet Jesus, please let that joke still work.)

Anyway, here's a puzzle for you. I've said repeatedly that the only reason to be a writer is passion. After all, the money, the hours, and the uncertainty make it a pretty crappy career option. In effect, I'm saying that the only reason to choose writing as your career is if you'd write anyway, whether out of love or, as I prefer to think of it, an unreasoning, unthinking, unrelenting compulsion.

So the reason for wanting a career in writing cannot simply be the desire to write, since for the most part only writers who would write regardless of any obligation or resulting income will become career writers. In fact, almost universally, you'll need to do a whole lot of writing for free before you get anywhere professionally. So if we're not barking up this tree because we want to write, why are we doing so?

Freedom. Specifically, freedom to write. More specifically, these three kinds of freedom:

Economic Freedom

By which I mean the ability to afford time in which to write. It seems unlikely that we will, within our lifetimes, be freed of certain basic needs - food, water, shelter, the warm and welcoming company of other human beings - and so we all have to do something to ensure we accrue the means of satisfying those needs. That takes time - for most people, a larger slice of every week than anything else except sleeping - and it's time in which you can't be writing, unless you make enough from your writing to cover your basic needs.

This is the obvious kind of freedom to write; the more you make from your writing, the less you have to make elsewhere. The more you make from your writing past the point at which you can satisfy your basic needs (for me, this is somewhere around £6,000 per year, just by way of a basic figure, though I live in a cheap city for UK standards), the freer you are to do other stuff, stuff that will enrich your life and by extension your writing - research and so on.

But there are two other kinds of freedom which I think are really, seriously important and that maybe we tend to think less about when planning our careers.

Cultural Freedom

I'm not talking here about legal freedom. It's a travesty that there are writers anywhere in the world who deserve the legal freedom to write but do not have it, but other people have covered that subject better than I could many times over. I'm talking about something altogether less drastic, but in some ways more insidious.

Most of the writers I know can cite at least one example of a time when they've been pursuing the dream of writing and someone, whether a friend or family member, authority figure or complete stranger, has had a go at them for being childish, or not having a real job, or not doing their duty to society.

It can be an out-and-out attack, or just a stream of 'harmless' jokes - even a single offhand comment at the wrong moment - but it can be absolutely devastating. I've been lucky, personally; I move in unusually enlightened and creative circles. But I know some writers who've been almost completely broken by this sort of stuff. If you're a non-writer and you're doing this to someone, stop it. No arguments. No buts. You're not helping, and you're certainly not going to win anyone over.

Equally, I bet no-one talks like this to Tom Clancy or Stephen King these days. Or Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman (to whom we'll return in a moment). It's not just a matter of the money involved; it's the professionalism and consistency of the people earning it. It's the fact that they treated writing like a career until the rest of the world had to sit back and say, 'You know what, you win.'

That is what I mean by cultural freedom. But perhaps even more importantly, there's...

Psychological Freedom

I love this talk by Neil Gaiman for a lot of reasons. One of my favourite bits is the bit at 7:08 where he talks about 'impostor syndrome'. I've had a similar paranoid delusion once or twice about the proverbial man with the clipboard. I still catch myself feeling guilty doing things which are parts of my writerly career. For example, on Wednesday evening, I was up against some pretty bad writers' block, and did one of the things that tends to work for me: I switched to a different activity which also serves my career goals (in this case, I switched to research - reading a biography of Alan Turing).

And purely because I was switching from part of the job I wasn't enjoying to part of the job that I then did enjoy, I felt guilty about it. Why?

Well, there's a difference between writing and most other jobs; it's a very nebulous, fluid activity. That's one of the things I find really appealing about it; if I get stuck or bored with one aspect of it, I can switch and do something else, almost whenever I want. Most conventional jobs allow no such freedom.

But I shouldn't feel guilty about this - it's one of the privileges I earn in exchange for giving up the better rates of pay, better job security and so on that come with conventional jobs. I feel guilty because I haven't given myself enough psychological freedom to write, or to be a writer.

If you're aiming to be a professional writer, I think all three of these freedoms should be on your list of goals. As for how to achieve those goals? Well, how about this; if I work it out first, I'll let you know, if you promise to do the same for me ;)

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