Mark Terry

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Writer 'Tude

March 10, 2008
John Scalzi has a wonderful blog post today here. 

In it, he talks about how 10 years ago today he was laid-off from his writing job--just as he and his wife Krissy were planning on making a bid on a new house. He talks about what a blow this was to him and how he responded--poorly--and how he bounced back and how things worked out.

I spent another couple of days being blackly, blackly depressed, and then something interesting happened, which was that I had one of those epiphany moments you hear about people having. And the epiphany was this — that how I and Krissy reacted to what was happening to us right now was going to echo through how we faced the rest of our lives, individually and together.

In this case, there were two ways this could play out. We could play it safe, take that depressing-but-affordable apartment, live within our reduced means and grind it out. Or we could sayscrew this, go back to house hunting, buy a house, keep moving our lives forward, and have faith in ourselves that we would find a way to make it work.

As soon as I read his post I knew I had to respond about the writing attitude. I think it's possible that if you have a real job in a real career you may go through 40 years without any major crises. Yeah, you'll have some bad moments, there will be some ups and some downs, but if you're an accountant or a business person or whatever, it's entirely possible you will go through your entire career without being laid off, without missing a check, without any major setbacks. (It's entirely possible you will, too; think Enron or any of the thousands of people working for companies like General Motors or IBM that have lost their jobs unexpectedly--shit happens). That's partly why the entire 9-5 paycheck with benefits evolved. To keep society on an even keel, so people could focus on other things without having to worry about where their money was coming from.

But if you're a writer--a freelance writer--I got news for you. There's going to be some setbacks. There's going to be some crises... if you let them become crises.

It's one of the reasons why I don't think the freelance writing life is for everybody. There's an attitude you need to develop (or have) if you're going to survive this. Because the checks don't always come on time, and editors change jobs, and the new editors may not like you or want you or need you, publishers fold, publishers stop working with freelance writers, publishers changes directions.

So the attitude you need to have is: no problem, I'll go find another client. I'll go find another gig. 

Really, not in a necessarily dramatic fashion. John Scalzi's story is inspiring, but I bet that 5 years or 6 year or whatever later, John lost a client or there was an editorial change or something happened, and his reaction was simply, "Damn, I guess I'd better go find somebody else to work for." And then went and did it.

Not everybody's prepared for that aspect of the writing life.

And here's another thing. Unless you're a bestselling author, you're going to have crises in your fiction life. I would argue that my fiction writing career has been nothing but crises, but I'm still hanging in there (why, perhaps, is up for debate on any given day; because I can, I guess).

I've had my share of crises. Checks that were VERY late. At least one no-pay client. One or two that went out of business. Editors that have changed and the new ones who didn't want to work with me. (And new editors that did, so it can go both ways). Regular clients that stopped working with freelancers. The first few times it can throw you, but it happens regularly enough (unfortunately) that if you plan to stay sane, you just have to treat it as part of the business landscape and know that, "Yes, I'm a writer, I have a marketable skill, and there's work--probably even better work--out there for me and all I have to do is find it."



Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...


True story . . . I was a senior editor with a "corner office" (not a CUBE! an office with a door! LOL!) and I had baby #2 almost thirteen years ago. He got the RSV virus that Christmas and was hospitalized for days. I curled up with him in his hospital bed and literally prayed for days. And at the end of that time, his doctor said, "DON'T put him in daycare. Too risky for him right now." (I was on maternity leave.) So I worked out a "work-from-home" deal where I put in 15 hours of office face time and the rest from home. But it was still a grind because of him being sick. So I decided I would become a full-time freelancer. I was terrified. My dad said, "Screw it. You can ALWAYS get another job. Jobs are easy to find. It's having the balls to just DO IT that's tough. And you're tough." He gave me a shot of courage. I quit. And I tripled my income.

And in the end, there's ALWAYS fear pressing up on a freelancer. ALWAYS. Because nothing is ever a guarantee. But at this point, I just use that as a motivator. I got another big deal with week. A proposal a year in the making. You know, you just keep PUSHING.


7:03 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I wonder how many writers make the jump because of a crisis. John Scalzi clearly did. You did. I'm pretty sure Eric Mayer did after losing his corporate job.

In my case it was the death of my father, more than anything else. With a family history of longevity--both my Dad's parents lived into their 90s--we always thought he'd be around for another 20 years. He was never sick in his life. Then he got cancer and when he died both my wife and I felt like, "There really ARE NO guarantees, are there. Better make the most of what you got. What do you want to do?" And that helped make the jump, and thank God for it.

7:09 AM  
OpenID eric-mayer said...

I agree with your comments but certainly not with John Scalzi's. From my observation it is the commonest thing in the world for people to be taking on financial burdens, to buy houses they can't afford for example, in the expectation that somehow they'll find the money, John did, but most don't and many end up buried in debt and financial problems which stop them henceforth from thinking about anything but money. So his advice in this regard is terrible.

When I lost my job, rather than fixating on maintaining exactly the same middle class lifestyle, Mary and I decided to instead take the opportunity to reduce our material needs, freeing up time for us to write, rather than make money. If you happen to have a good, reliable way to produce lots of money, you might look at things differently but most of us are not in that position and most people who aim to achieve something creative and thrive financially fail and usually on both counts.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, if you read through the comments on John's blog, you'll note that more than one person took him to task for exactly that. After all, John was the one who wrote a very lengthy blog posting on fiscal responsibility for the writer and yet today he seems to refute that.

In a rebuttal of sorts, John notes that no, it wasn't something he would recommend, but it was something he did do 10 years ago and it came out all right and it did reflect on an approach to thinking about your life.

Had I been in John's shoes, I probably would have been hunting around for a "real" job PDQ. Generally speaking, with the exception of a cyclical runaway VIsa bill (that is to say, most of the time we have it totally under control, but every couple years it spirals to levels we're not comfortable with and we cut way back to get it back to $0--at least for a couple months), we try very hard to live within our means.

11:26 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

This winter I've been the closest I've ever been to considering a real job. Definitely a crisis.

While it's true that I work more hours than 9 to 5, and that even my "vacations" are really spent working behind the scenes, I can't imagine giving up the empowerment of working for myself. ME. That's a big deal.

And I'm not sure that the security of a 9 to 5 isn't more of an illusion of security. You have so much less power to make your own way, try new things, to do a little tweak here and there and bring in more income. If you're fired or laid off or your company goes out of business, you go from your income to zero in a split second. At least, when you're working for yourself, it's never that drastic.

I don't know. I'll keep the faith, I guess. It does always work out, somehow. It's a mystery.

Like the song, at least I can say I did it my way, LOL.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think there are plenty of reasons to enjoy being self-employed--financial security is probably not one of them. That's with some caveats, though. Had I stayed working where I was, I would be making about 2/3s of what I am now. I also got out of a 45 mile one-way commute while gas prices were still well under $3 per gallon (remember those days?).

On the other hand, I had a lot of paid time off, healthcare benefits and a retirement package. I also hated the job and was a grouchy bastard because of it, so overall I wouldn't change places for any amount of financial security.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Excellent post. Both your's and Scalzi's. I think sometimes the ability to leap depends on those who depend on us.
I've played it safe for so long because of kids and kids in college and all that.
My dh was suddenly unemployed 5 years ago and I was in full out panic mode. Working as many hours as I could, scrimping on everything, but then he was rehired as a contractor the next day. He never actually missed a day of work. And when he negotiated the "contract" job he factored in cost of benefits so nothing changed. But we were scared.
If it happened again I think I would view it more as an adventure. Take a leap and see where we land.
I'll be unemployed as of June 30th. I'm ready. It will be an adventure but I trust.

Leap! And the net will appear!

8:16 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Good luck.

3:36 AM  
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6:43 PM  

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