It’s (Not Really) A Living: Dispatches from the Writing Life -The Toast

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Back when I was nearing graduation, and everyone was talking about their capital-p Plans for the future, there was one response I’d get over and over again:

“Wow, that’s so brave of you.”

At the time, it confused me. I wasn’t joining the army or going through recruiting for the FBI. I wasn’t even teaching for America.

I was planning to write.

That might deserve a capital letter, too; I wanted to Write a Novel, and that was the important (really the only) goal I’d set my sights on. I’d waitress, or bartend, or something else suitable to the struggles-montage scene in the movie, and in the meantime, I’d spill my talent all over the page, and then, if I was lucky, within a year or so I’d be published. MAYBE two years, if I was unlucky. I mean, I got it. You had to pay your dues.

Now, eight years on, I’m starting to understand the “brave” comments.

This is the place where this could turn into an “it takes so much effort to create every day” piece, or a “but you know what, because I have a calling, I have to find that bravery and write anyway, and that’s enough for me, just another arts-version of a saint” piece, or one of the other variations on the theme of the trials and moral-superiority-flavored rewards of this oh-so-difficult path I’ve chosen.

It’s not going to; I hate those pieces. I write for any number of reasons, but none of them deserves a medal. And let’s be honest, if this were a piece about how I always knew my “calling” was to manage a hedge fund, and dammit, I suffered for that art, working for weeks—years, even!—to perfect my understanding of the most beautiful market indicator, my feel for the perfect moment to buy…well, I doubt your heart would soar at the end of it. Unless the movie adaptation starred Will Smith.

If writing is brave at all, it’s only because it’s one of a very few careers where a.) there are no guarantees that you’ll get anywhere, ever, even if you have some talent and play your cards right and b.) you’re not just expected, you’re required to subject yourself to continual failures, and then, instead of crying in a corner and cursing the world, you do it again.

Some of my favorite rejections:

The one I’ve received approximately 1,000 times: “We’re sorry to say that THIS THING YOU SPENT FOREVER ON isn’t right for us, despite its evident merit.” Not evident enough, though.

The one that manages to make me feel worse when it’s pretending to try to make me feel better: “One of your stronger recent efforts, but it doesn’t quite shine enough to let through.”

The one that came fully eight months after I submitted: “We’re going to pass on your submission, but we like your writing, and encourage you to submit again. We don’t say this to everyone, so if you don’t mind the wait too much, please send us more stuff.” And of course, because my body chemistry seems to actually feed off rejection, especially year-long-protracted-rejection (the foie gras of rejections), I’m currently waiting to see if they say it to me, again.

As you probably guessed by now, my vision of dues-paying was pretty hopelessly naïve. After two years, I’d managed to live through the fact that no one wanted my (admittedly terrible) first novel, and I’d placed a very few things with a handful of non-paying (but the prestige! Think of the prestige!) outlets. After eight years, I’ve been lucky enough (because as tragic as it may seem, I’m pretty sure I have, in fact, been lucky in my career thus far) to counter the 3,128 “nos” with a handful more yeses, some of them with a paycheck attached, and to land a day job that’s occasionally less frustrating than retail (and significantly more lucrative).

That’s another career milestone I’ve reached, actually: the one where I realized that, for right now, at least, I can’t live off my writing.

The best things on my CV—the ones I almost want to use comic sans for, just so they’ll stand out—haven’t paid me. Most of the things that have paid me have sucked up a lot of time, and—because they’re usually something I’m not writing out of passion, but writing for a paycheck—my entire daily allotment of emotional resources (I’ve often suspected, accurately I think, that I have extremely limited emotional resources). And every minute I spend writing one of those paycheck pieces is a minute I’m not putting into the Stuff That Matters To Me. The third novel that I’m still (perhaps foolishly) holding out hope for. The incredibly wry, insightful piece of satire that will change hearts and minds AND go viral. The personal essay—like this one—that hopefully shows off more than my ability to digest and regurgitate this year’s shoe trends.

The light at the end of the tunnel is pretty dim; if (when, dammit, WHEN!) I manage to make enough of a name for myself that enough people will pay me enough money for enough of my ideas that I don’t need a day job, I still probably won’t be making much. Startups talk about “ramen profitable”—that important tipping point where you’re making just enough to live off your idea, if you live exclusively off ramen. As a writer, the odds are that I will either always have a day job, or that if I give that up, I’ll never make it to the coveted “cup noodles” stage of profitability.  People always talk about how you don’t do these things for the money, you do them out of passion, but I think all they’re really saying is that there’s no money to be had.

Unless you write the next 50 Shades, which I am definitely not above.

My mom, at least, hates the idea of my inevitable, noodley fate. She’s never said it in so many words, but the undercurrent of every discussion we’ve had about my “career path” since college has been practically pulsing with poorly-suppressed worry. For every cheerleading chat about some minor success, there have been at least two others about whether or not I’m considering grad school, yet, or whether maybe I’d do well in an office like So-and-so’s daughter, you know she still finds time to do her photography. And while she’s never paid my bills, or my rent (something I think she regretted immediately; when she helped me move into my first post-college apartment, she walked in, looked around, and started crying), she can’t keep herself from sending me “just because” gifts of $50 here, or a Whole Foods gift card there. She understands that I’m okay with suffering for my art, but that doesn’t mean she has to accept my down-market grocery choices.

Luckily for me, even though my current job keeps me above the poverty line, she hasn’t fully shed that habit.

That’s not to say she doesn’t support me in the more important ways—she does, though I’m not sure she always understands why one “yes” is better than another, when she’s never heard of any of the places publishing me in the first place. But I’m still 99.99% certain that nothing would make her happier than if I called her up tomorrow and said “you know what, I was wrong about this whole thing, and I’m going to law school.” She loves me, and she wants me happy, but even more than that, she wants me to have health insurance. AND dental.

But I haven’t made that call, and at this point, I don’t think I ever will, because—for reasons I don’t want to go into, for fear of this morphing into one of those previously mentioned “you’re so lucky the world has martyrs like me” essays—whatever it is I’m doing here (and I promise you, if I actually knew what it was, I’d tell you…and probably run away from it in terror), it just seems more important than a paycheck, or the ability to ever take a REALLY nice vacation.

Is that brave? Or stupid? Or just really, really arrogant (because what’s more arrogant than saying, “Here. I give you some thoughts. I assume you’ll want to pay me for them.”)?

I’m not really sure, but one thing I do know:

They better get somebody good to play me in the movie version.

Jilly Gagnon's debut comic novel, Choose Your Own Misery: The Office Adventure (co-written with Mike MacDonald), was published in January 2016.

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