Writing Is a Real Job

Such a Deal

“God,” I prayed, “let me write for a living.”

Through my garret door strode a dude wearing a red suit and brimstone cologne.

He grinned. “Let’s talk.”

“What? You want my soul?”

He laughed. “A writing career’s not worth that. I’ll accept your sanity.”


Decades later, I’m still in my garret.

He’s still laughing.


Writing Is a Real Job

I’ve been invited to participate in a panel called “Writing Is a Real Job” at the Left Coast Crime conference at the end of March, in Sacramento, California. This assignment has got me thinking about writing as a career. Specifically it has made me wonder if I qualify to talk about this subject. Me? A real writer?

 Whenever Susan and I go on vacation, we find ourselves talking to strangers, often in warm, friendly bars. Inevitably someone asks us the question “What do you do?” We refuse to answer. It’s not that we’re shy, or ashamed of what we do, or especially unfriendly. It’s just that we don’t talk about our work when we’re on vacation. We work side by side, fifty hours a week, fifty weeks a year, and the reason we’re in that bar somewhere in the tropics is to forget about the publishing business.

In recent years, however, I’ve developed the sheer brazen gall to say, “I’m a writer.” That warms up the conversation, shines a big spotlight on me, allows me to brag about my books, and gives me a chance to pretend to be modest, just this guy doing his job. I don’t pass out bookmarks or collect emails for my mailing list. But I do say out loud what for decades I’ve been too shy to say: “I’m a writer.”

Why haven’t I dared to say this all my adult life? Have I only recently earned the right? In fact, I’ve been writing all my adult life, and have always been able to make a few dollars doing it. I’ve led a literary life as a bookseller, a free-lance editor, a small-press publisher, and a teacher of creative writing. Along the way I’ve written a lot of books and a ton of stories, and a few of those books and a few dozen stories have appeared in print. Some even brought me some money.

It is true that most of the writing that has earned me a living has been crafting contracts, press releases, catalog copy, back cover copy, and business correspondence. When I’m writing contracts, business letters, and press releases, I’m writing to live. When I’m in the midst of making a novel, on the other hand, I live to write. And by God, I consider that a real job, a respectable job. For practical reasons, I don’t allow myself the addictive pleasure of writing fiction during “business hours,” Monday through Saturday. But I write my fiction all day Sunday, every Sunday, and even a few hours every day on vacation.

I’m a writer. You are too. Say after me: “I am a writer.” We writers are writers because we must write. We made a deal with the devil, I suppose, and the deal was worth it.

I look forward to being on that panel and hearing what other professional writers have to say. If you’re coming to Left Coast Crime, I invite you to sit in with us Friday, March 30, at 2:15 p.m. The panel will be moderated by Simon Wood, and my fellow panelists will be Jill Amadio, Beth Henderson, and LJ Sellers.


10 Responses

  1. Something’s in the air. My guest blog today on Roux Morgue is on this very topic, John. Maybe we’re in sync because I just received my copies of MIX-UP IN MINIATURE! http://clairemjohnson.blogspot.com/2012/02/time-for-guest-blogger-camille.html

    Can’t wait for that panel at LCC!

  2. John, stand up and be proud! You ARE a writer. And .. sorry. But you have to take those bookmarks with you on vacation. I used to be really embarrassed and shy about self-promotion. But … somehow, I got over it. I carry them everywhere. I’ve handed out bookmarks on trains, planes, and airport buses. In supermarkets. Bars? Sure! Hair salons. Art galleries. Two weeks ago I gave two to someone in the try-on room at an Eddie Bauer outlet. Last week I handed them to the nurses prepping my husband for his colonoscopy. (He suggested it.) And, yup, I take names & cards & addresses for my mailing list when appropriate. When you’re a writer … somebody has to let people know … and it might as well be you. Write on ….!

  3. Looking forward to seeing you in Sacramento, Camille. And congratulations on receiving your new book. It’s a dandy!

    Lea, I know you’re right about those bookmarks and being bold about self-promotion. It’s part of the job. But it’s so damned hard for me! I’m trying to learn…

  4. It took some nerve, the first time I said to someone, “I’m a writer,” and just as much when I later said, “I’m an editor.” I expected wild hoots of laughter each time. But after all, they can’t prove you’re not, nor do they get to look at your bank statement. It does get easier, and you even get used to it. Perhaps not to passing out bookmarks in line, tho…

  5. I tell the IRS I’m a writer, but it still penalizes me because I spend more than I earn. Or maybe that’s what it is to be a writer. You have to write in spite of all. It’s a compassion, a curse, a joy. And we’re stuck with it. But I agree with Lea: bring along those bookmarks–you don’t have to talk about writing, just slip ’em into somebody’s pocket. That Redwood Door is a winner. I’m laughing out loud while I’m shaking in my boots!

  6. I’m looking forward to this panel! I used to tell people “I’m a journalist/editor, but I also write novels.” Now I just say “I’m a novelist.” And I love it! The downside, of course, is that working at home, my family doesn’t consider it a real job, so I get all kinds of requests I’d never get if I still worked in an office.

  7. My name is James, and I’m a writer.

    It’s been many years since we met at Kepler’s (Vanity Fire signing) and again the following June at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I’ve been attending the mystery writers conference at Book Passage the past several years, while writing a murder mystery set in a small town in rural northeastern California. I haven’t yet made a commitment to attend a conference this year, but will definitely attend your panel if I make it to Left Coast Crime.

    Thanks for the great post. Looking forward to getting a copy of Behind the Redwood Door.

    James Harris
    Stanford 1984

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