“When a person is twenty-one or twenty-two years old and facing that great enigma about what to do, envying the law students or medical students who can get on a set of rails and run on it and know where they’re going, the writer doesn’t know. But a writer should also bear in mind there are numerous paths to this goal and they’re all O.K….You’re going to get there. If the person expects the big answer at twenty-one, that’s ridiculous. Everyone’s in the dark.”
(John McPhee quoted in Literary Journalism in an essay by editor Norman Sims)
When I was twenty-two I was a world-traveling SCUBA instructor with a degree in Anthropology hanging on the wall of my vacant bedroom at my parent’s house. I wasn’t allowed to put holes in the wall of the attic, accessed by fold down stairs, in which I lived in Key West.
Would I ever actually use the degree?
I didn’t want to be an Anthropologist. I wanted to write. But how?
When I turned off the light in my attic I was literally and figuratively in the dark.
I’ve recounted my writing path before, so I won’t do it again here, but I would like to touch on something that McPhee said. I have always envied folks on a traditional career path, including med students, law students, and teachers. They know they have to go to school for X many years and then for X many years more, and then they’ll find a job doing X. A writer faces uncertainty.
You can work your tail off writing your novel only to complete it and no one wants to publish it. You can travel the world chasing the tags of your clothes with a notion of an idea that could be a book, maybe, and you could return with nothing to show but a wallet $8,000 lighter.
Writing takes courage, faith, and, in my case, a very a patient spouse.
I was a columnist earning less than $30 per week. Then I was a freelancer earning a couple of hundred per story. Then I was an author who was paid a year’s salary (a year working at McDonald’s). Then I was a freelancer earning up to $3 per word. Then I was a speaker, earning a couple grand per talk. And now I’m all of the above, sometimes.
I’m not really sure.
I had a day job, but it is no more. I know how I’ll earn a living from now until December, but after that I have no idea. The Nothing Personal book proposal is very near to going out. Even though I think it’s a killer book, who knows how it will be received? My last two proposals had some interest, but not enough to give them life. So much of a writing career depends on someone else believing in your story.
At 21 I lived McPhee’s quote and at 31, a published author, I still do. Yes, I live the uncertainty, but more than that I have faith in what McPhee says, “You’re going to get there.” I hope that I will always be striving for a there — another book, the next speaking gig, This American Life, the New Yorker, Esquire, a novel.
A writer must constantly evolve. McPhee says, “It’s like a huge river with a lot of islands in it. You can go around an island to the left or right. You can got to this or that island. You might go to an eddy. But you’re still in the river.”
What’s next for me? Maybe a book. I’ve got some cool radio pieces in the works and an exciting list of fun speaking gigs coming up. Maybe school.
To grow as a writer I’m auditing a graduate course in Literary Journalism at Ball State that led me to the book below (affiliate link) and McPhee’s quote. Maybe I’ll take the course for credit and pursue my MA.
When I grow up I want to be a writer. I’m not positive how I’ll continue my pursuit of there, but one thing is for sure — I’ll never stop paddling.