My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Self-Care, Brutal Honesty, Self-Deception, and the Writer Who Wants to "Make It" (Personal Update, Meta)

This is not a complainy post! 

As you can probably imagine, I've heard some variation of "Maybe you should take it easy" quite a bit lately. My schedule has been packed ever tighter as baby's nap time shortens and kid two needs after-school supervision. I stay late to do a few chores almost every night, and at least once a week there's some additional glut of hours––either a late night where I do bedtime or a few hours on the weekend where I tag in for a few so mom and dad can do some deep cleaning or other chores. I was stretched a lot thinner than I looked on paper. Then there was the boat fire that killed my friends and there was the threat of wildfire that caused PG&E to kill the power. As well as no shortage of things like trips to Disneyland (where, yes, it's Disneyland and Disneyland is squeeworthy fun, but I'm also doing all the driving, bedtimes, games in line, and watching to make sure those distracted moments don't turn into lost children "incidents").

All of this happens in the backdrop of a job writing that usually takes 30-40 hours a week. If I wrap up everything at 50 hours, it feels a bit like a mini-vacation. I'm usually tumbling into bed on Sunday after clocking in something a little closer to 60 or 70.

But this is NOT a complainy post.

As a living demonstration of writing, this blog has its ups and definitely its downs. The past couple of months have only been rivaled by the cancer and breakup of 2016. Keeping up with my own posting schedule (and sometimes even my "plan B" posting schedule has been tough). A lot of people have pointed out that it's okay to miss some posts and take it easy and take some time off. I've gotten some of the most kind and compassionate emails even from huge long-time donors imploring me to please take care of myself and take a few days or even a week or two away from the blog. They've talked about self-care. They've talked about mental health. They've talked about how it is capitalism that is tricking me into this perception that I have to stay "productive."

They're right. They're also not right. Great taste. Less filling. Soup. Meal.

I mean they are correct in every sense of what would be good for me and how we all internalize social messaging about "productivity," but I also cannot change the rules of the world I live and write in. Not today. I think about it as a writer who has carved out just enough income to survive (but needs a side gig for health insurance and to have a cell phone). I do believe this need to be ever more productive is killing most people in late-stage capitalism as our bosses get richer but our incomes stagnate. We're working more and more side gigs and hustling and working from home and answering just one more work email and and and.....  An increasing number of us have taken on far more than any "forty-hour week" (itself an arbitrary and moralistic measure of productivity from Henry Ford), all this just to keep our heads above water––not because we've become obsessed with a lifestyle of consumption. When that is the reality of the world we live in, it can be calming and validating but also incredibly dangerous to disregard.

I think about this a lot. I mean, I think about this a LOT. 

I don't just think about it as a writer working in this world or as a human watching the world change fundamentally from the one I grew up in. But I also think about this as the writer who has decided to take on writing a blog that is a living example of how to "make it" as a writer. I could make a few choices, roll the dice, and take my chances. I have amazing peeps who won't let me fall, and as long as I'm willing to cook and clean and my clients are two full-time professionals with two kids, some chronic pain, and more money than free time, I may have more hours than I can handle at times, but I will never have fewer than I need.

But it's not just me out here. Okay, that's not true, but I'm also sensitive to my Mission Statement here at Writing About Writing. I can't just give you all the advice to find rich tech money folks who need domestic labor and ride its coattails. ("That's how to be a writer. *drops the mic* "Goodnight!") I would if that were a feasible life choice for everyone, and I hope that at least you all are getting a good impression for how long you're going to have to write while working some side gig (if you don't mind being pretty poor) or day job (if you'd like brand-name frozen burritos). For most of the world, working and writing is going to be several years of long, tough hours and as the writing takes hold and starts to generate income, there IS going to be a point where one realizes that more "self-care" and "taking it easy" and "not succumbing to the ravages of capitalism" will also hurt one's writing career.

Let me make sure I put that in flashing neon on the scrolling marquee:
There IS going to be a point where one realizes that more "self-care" and "taking it easy" and "not succumbing to the ravages of capitalism" will also hurt one's writing career. 

You've got to write. You've GOT to write. You've got to keep writing, and if you don't, the reality of the world we live in will be there. If you don't write on the regular, prose can decay. Craft becomes rusty. It's harder to fill a page because you're out of practice. But even from a strictly pragmatic point of view, you have less writing that is ready to go. And if that's your bread and butter, you're going to end up with self-care instead of the rent. (And I think there are very few of us who would be able to pay our landlord by inviting them to join us in a tea-infused bubble bath.) That includes the writers for whom it IS a more traditional job like freelance writers or tech writers. They don't get to call their boss more than once in a while and talk about "self-care" or "late-stage capitalism." If they use up all their days off, they get written up or fired. If they are a freelancer, they can't blow off deadlines and maintain a professional reputation or just not take jobs day after day.

Do I like being beholden to this system? Fuck no. Would I love a world with Universal Basic Income enough that my writing could be more quality than quantity? Yes. Would I thrive if I made enough money that I could post a little less and write fiction a little more? Absolutely. Would being able to watch The Contrarian only as his Uncle Chris a couple of times a week instead of as a nanny/side gig/hustle/need-the-money mean that my writing got nearly twice as many hours of my creativity? It would.

But that is not the world I live in.

(Also, this is not a complainy post.)

It's not just about the money either. It's about the writing––the craft. Stephen King writes ten pages a day. JK Rowling starts at eight hours a day and goes up from there. Murakami works for five to six hours each morning. Vonnegut scheduled some breaks, but basically worked from 5:30 a.m. to noon. Maya Angelou would get up before six, go to a hotel room she rented by the month, and work all day. Barbara Kingsolver wakes up at four, writes until her kids need attention, and then gets back to it after she gets them off to school. There is virtually no writer you can think of whose writing makes you swoon who doesn't write like it's an important job to them.

Lord knows I don't always get that air/fuel mixture right. I know I err on the side of overwork. I've been to therapy about it. I dived into workaholism after my last big break up, and I'm in recovery. I was clacking away like I was "Fine. Just fine. This is fine." a few days after my friends died while I was living in their house. (Morgan Freeman's narrator voice: "He wasn't fine.") I'm NOT the person you want to model this after.  But I am the person to tell you that there is absolutely a needle to thread. Too many self care days, and you won't be getting paid. Too many "take it easy" indulgences, and you don't have your book written. And breaks beget breaks*, when it comes to NOT writing in a way that has been observed by too many folks to dismiss.

*Sometimes beget breaks beget long breaks beget hiatuses beget "I should get back to that someday" beget some clever line like "Either these interminable writing breaks go or I do!"

I think most of the people on your bookshelf and almost all the working writers you might know overdo (or overdid) it...at least a little. That's why they are on your bookshelf. That's why they're the best. When most people chose to take it easy, they went back to the page for another hour. Like the best athletes, or the best musicians, they got where they were by working when most people called it a day. I'm not trying to excuse some of my more unhealthy habits, but....well maybe I am sort of trying to excuse a few of the less unhealthy ones.

There are a lot of wonderful things that happen when a writer finds an audience. I love mine. Oh, sweet strawberry blintzes, do they ever make me feel warm and fuzzy, especially when I'm having a shitty day. They are amazing people, some I recognize day by day and some strangers to me, who have come to see me as a human who deals with good times and bad. And they care if I'm overdoing it. They tell me not to worry if I take a day off––they'll be here. Or they remind me that from the other side of the equation, a day where I post a couple of reruns would hardly even be noticed.

They are the best.

So let me make sure I also tell you about the cold, bullshit, capitalist, end of this equation that is separate from these wonderful people who I would line up for hugs, high fives, and/or cheek kisses if I could. These fine humans with their nurturing, validating, and altruistic reminders come from both folks who support me financially and folks who don't, but when it comes to the former, my best guess as a casual observer is that they amount to about 90% of my patronage.

Which means there's roughly another 10%. They are the cranky demandy-pants folks in my inbox who have LOTS of things they want to say about what and how often I should be writing.

What I'm telling you as a writer making money writing is that it does matter that I push myself. My income fluctuates when I am not writing as much, as well, or as consistently. 
No one ever says, "Post or I'm out," but a few just quietly leave. Or they quietly lower their monthly contribution. I know that this happens for many reasons and the correlation doesn't equal causation in every case. (And obviously I would never put someone on the spot--most people cancel because their financial situation has changed.) However, it is impossible not to notice that this happens almost any time I am in a slump. And when I'm posting at a clip, I PICK UP patrons faster than when I'm having a rough go of it.

Cold. Hard. Financial reality. Can't escape it. I lose money when I don't post. I gain money when I'm prolific. Period.

Now I'm telling this to you, the writer who wants to "make it," because you don't have a boss who is going to say "You've taken a lot of time off lately, Brecheen." You don't have a supervisor who is going to say "I'll have to write you up if you use another sick day before next month," or a manager who will laugh if you start to talk about a mental health day. You won't get an annual performance review or be up for a promotion. If you're like me, you have 240 bosses, and most of them are going to tell you to take it easy.....while others quietly give you a pay cut.

And there it is.

A working writer has to think hard about when to take breaks and for how long. They have to be brutally honest, not just about their own ambitions and how much work it can take to get to and stay at the top of one's game, but also about how their output will suffer. And in this world, right now, that output is directly linked to income. Rowling and King and Williams and Martin could probably STOP WRITING without needing to worry about the rent, but when one is just scraping by, the equation is different.

*voice trembles a little* But this is not a complainy post.

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