Ask a Debut Novelist - Question 5
In which thompsonted, author of The Land of Steady Habits, answers your questions about writing, publishing, and making good work. Have a question? Ask away.
Anonymous asked: More than a question of to MFA or not to MFA, did you ever consider pursuing more stable career interests (law, dentistry, consulting, whatever) to write on the side? If so, what made you decide against it?
Anonymous asked: When you were writing the book, how did you get enough money to eat, pay rent, etc.? Did you have jobs, or grants, and what did you have to do to get them?
I used to be really interested in the back flaps of books. For most of my twenties I was a serial wanderer of bookstores, and often I was more interested in the back flaps than I was in reading the books, glancing at the blurbs and flipping to look at the photo and mostly to see that one-paragraph bio. They fascinated me, and I collected the data they offered with a similar fastidiousness that, as a child, I’d seen among the kids who were collectors of baseball cards. I tended to remember most of the stats—who had gotten a Stegner and who came up through the Fine Arts Work Center, who’d been published by Open City and who’d miraculously broken the cryogenic seal of the New Yorker, who lived out in the crops of Indiana and who was already ensconced in New York or the Bay Area. I knew so much more about writers than I knew about their writing, and I had opinions, a little hierarchy in my mind of who had been anointed and why, all of it in the service of my own ambition, an attempt to map exactly how one day I wanted to do it.
I’m fairly certain these reconnaissance trips were my attempt to answer some version of both questions above, which is to say the question of money, specifically how you went about dedicating yourself to an endeavor that takes a tremendous commitment of time and in turn offers no guarantee of payment.
As far as I could tell there were two strains of bio that answered this question. The first was either a pedigreed list of academic institutions, colonies, conferences, and foundations, peppered with a handful of publications in established lit journals, or it was a list of certain magazines that had employed them (Harper’s, say, or really any publication with “New York” in its title). These bios functioned as a kind of checklist of smaller votes of confidence by the literary establishment. “I have been nurtured by institutions,” it seemed to say. “I have gotten here because all of these discerning people saw my potential and supported me.” Then there was the second kind of bio, which tended to be a long list of wildly varying (often entry-level) jobs—ice cream truck driver, jujitsu instructor, dog groomer, park ranger, kindergarten teacher, drywall mudder, freeway exit lane painter, on and on. The implication being that this was largely an individual effort, the sacrifice and dedication their own, this book an achievement in spite of the silent indifference of the rest of the world. “I’ve seen some things,” this bio seemed to say. “I’ve done stuff, and I know how to work, and most importantly I’ve believed in myself the entire time.”
Ultimately, the route I took, as I suspect is the case for most people, was some combination of the two. I worked jobs, some full time, and I still work part time as well as teach and consult and do some assistant work. And most significantly my wife has had a steady income through this, which includes our health insurance. That’s been enormous, the quiet month-to-month security that has made choosing a less stable path possible. But I also applied for stuff—MFA programs, fellowships, grants, colonies—some of which came through. Each of those tiny triumphs fueled my persistence and, perhaps just as significant as the funds and time they provided, also acted as the affirmation I needed to believe that I wasn’t wasting my time.
All of which is to say that while I used to have strong opinions about the “right” way to do this, I no longer do. I have seen just about as many paths as there are people, and of course everyone finds their own one. Work a demanding job, couch surf, stay at home with your kids, borrow money from your uncle or sister or spouse, be a doctor or a lawyer or a tow truck driver—hell, be all three. The only thing that matters is that you prioritize the writing in your life. It has to matter, the doing it. The greatest gift anyone ever gave me, when I was working full time and trying to write, was a coffee maker. The reason was that not only did it help me to get up, but for me it also ritualized the process—add the water, clean the filter, grind the beans—so that those very early mornings, when I could steal two hours before work, soon became the essential part of my day. Nobody could take them from me but myself. And that was hugely liberating, the fact that there was time, always, if I cared to take it. Working a job and writing a book did not have to be antithetical. There was space for both, if I took the writing as seriously as I took earning a paycheck.
I suppose the only concept that I bristle at, Anonymous, is the one of “writing on the side.” When it comes to writing, the difference between a hobbyist and a professional isn’t really money. Instead, I’ve found the difference is more internal than external, an issue of priority and persistence and self-seriousness, all of which I also understand are things that can be difficult to maintain when the demands of work and family and laundry (always laundry) are pressing on you, and especially when it feels like nobody else believes in you. It would be a little disingenuous of me to imply that every acceptance I have received hasn’t acted as a kind of lifeline, a reason to keep going, or that they still don’t. They do, of course they do. But I guess what I’m saying, mostly to myself, but also to you and to anyone else who might be struggling with this, is that you don’t need a book deal for your commitment to your writing to be valid, you do not need a grant or a residency or an MFA. All of those things are nice, and by all means you should go after them, but I guess what I’m saying is that you do not need permission. You give yourself permission, one day at a time, you find the hours and protect them, you treat them as important and they become important, you treat your work as valid and it becomes valid. The kind of resilience this requires is probably not natural, it certainly wasn’t to me. But I’ve found it can be learned, through repetition and routine, through the quiet power of habit and consistency. I still think the day I became a writer was not the day I sold my book, nor the day I was accepted to a la-di-da program. It was probably the first time I set an alarm and actually got out of bed, when I went to the kitchen and ground the beans and poured the water, and most importantly when I told myself to sit down and get to work because this mattered
Previously on Ask a Debut Novelist:
- On Writing and Revision: “Throw away the scale. There is no scale, there is only your story.”
- On the Book Business: “Selling a book won’t change your life—except it kind of will.”
- On Compliments: “And maybe every piece of writing is an act of trust.”
- On Self-Publishing, or Not: “Yearning for acceptance is a kind of acknowledgment of the reader, a sign of respect for other people and maybe even humility before them.”
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