How To Make It As A Writer

Guys. Can we just agree to think of today’s post as more like one giant aside from everything else I’ve been rambling about? Like imagine we’re walking down 17th Ave together, OR- ooo, sitting in the little pub at Guild Hall (it’s so fancy inside, all leathery and green- I feel like a legit writer when I sit in there, and I take all the help I can get in feeling legit) and imagine we’re having a conversation, and it’s going really well and it’s super deep and we’re gettin’ all up in to the details of things and our feelings and stuff, but then I lean in really close for a sec to be like “sorry to interrupt, but I just have to point out that there is a man outside the window dancing the chicken dance without any pants on”. That kind of aside- that’s what this post is today.

I first want to point out that I AM wearing pants while I’m writing this*, like actual real pants that have a zipper and a button and everything, which is a far cry from my usual all-grey sweat suit that is the required uniform of everyone-who-works-from-home.  Sometimes I’ll literally be in it all day, and then right before my husband comes home I’ll quickly change into real clothes so it looks like I’ve just had my life all put together all day err’ day. Anybody else?? I mean honestly, I don’t know how people do it who go to work (like in an actual building with elevators and stuff) wearing pants with buttons, and then they have to sit at their desk all day with that little button just nestling into your skin like it’s trying to be buried there, and the zipper imprinting race-tracks into your stomach like a Mack truck skidded to a stop on it. I can take about ten minutes of that crap before I’m back in the grey one-piece for the day- in fact, now that I think about it, the TRUE fire burning under my butt that keeps me motivated to “make it” as a writer (more on whatever that means later) is really just the fear of having to go back to a job that requires regular pants with non-stretchy waistlines. It’s enough to make me take even the worst freelance jobs just to avoid this hell-on-earth scenario.

But back to the aside- I want to address that little comment I threw in up there about “making it” as a writer, because this is something I talk about a lot with my students, and it’s something I grapple with literally every day of my life.  I’ve been working as a freelance screenwriter and playwright for about five years now, but up until last year I always had something else going on- I was in school for a while, first my bachelors and then the ridiculous masters, and then I was teaching at a college in Toronto. Writing was this thing I did on the side of my “regular” things, and I didn’t worry too much about whether I was “making it” or not- I had my bills paid in other ways, and the money I made writing was just icing on my not-at-all-gluten-free cake.  I wrote what I wanted to write, for whomever I wanted to write for, and got some pretty rad opportunities in the process.

And THEN, suddenly it’s 2016 and my husband and I decide to blow up our lives, leave Toronto, and head west to be closer to family and my parent’s dogs (but like actually- if you met them, you’d understand). I loved teaching and was sad to leave my school, but I didn’t feel like going back to academia where I had to mark students on their writing, which hurt my soul. I also knew in my heart that the time had come to give writing full-time a try, as petrifying as that seemed. And so I did- I landed an agent at the beginning of that year and a film writing gig that seemed too good to be true (um, it was, but that’s a story for another time), and everything seemed to be headed in the right direction. But suddenly, now that all my attention (and identity!- no backup ‘teacher’ label to convince all the concerned dads-of-friends that I could “support myself”) was in writing, the question of whether or not I was “making it” began to consume me, and loomed in front of me larger and larger every day, until this past summer, where I was feeling crippled from it- barely able to write or work or do anything. Now that I was focusing the majority of my time, and the majority of my expectation for a pay cheque, on freelance writing, it suddenly got a whole lot scarier, and harder, and no matter how many goals I met, the bar for “making it” seemed like it just kept slipping out of reach. Any of you in a creative profession, or any profession I suppose, know what I mean? When that line gets blurred between the desire to create art, and the desire to “make it” in your artistic sphere, it can leave you (as it left me) feeling like a failure at both.

Enter a fantastic book that I read a while ago but suddenly started calling to me again from my dusty shelf- Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider, a title that basically sums up my current life writing all day on my own, with occasional reprieves writing with others in my workshops. I cracked it open on a particularly desperate day and it was like receiving a perfectly balanced on-the-rocks margarita when all you’ve been getting is the weak slushy kind, aka my kinda heaven. I could write twenty posts on the gems of truth in that book that my soul lapped up like wine at happy hour on a Friday (that reminds me- it’s 3pm- brb), but for today’s aside, I’ll just mention the one truth that really helped me find my way out of the hamster-on-a-wheel race to “make it” with my writing. In one chapter, dear Pat (who I imagine drinks a lot of tea and wears homemade sweaters) makes this simple but brilliant statement: “the goal and the true discipline [of art] is completion”.

 . . . . . . .

Think about that for a second. The only goal of your art, in my case writing, is completion. That’s it. That’s all we can shoot for. We can’t focus our goals on “making it”, on getting published or making lots of money or winning an award. Yes these things are nice and might come into play once or even a handful of times in our lives if we’re lucky, but these things CANNOT be the reason we make art. The goal of making art is simply to complete it. If we have felt the strong, strange urge to begin it, our only objective should be to ensure we finish it. We should also want to complete it to the best of our ability, sure, but art is also not perfect and rarely lives up to our original vision for it anyway. ALL we can focus on is finishing what we started.

Amy Poehler in her awesome autobiography Yes Please put it a different way where she said, and I'm paraphrasing, “We just put our heads down and did the work”, ie. we didn’t look around seeing who noticed our work, how much we were getting paid for our work, or if our work was getting us more work. Her comment was in regards to writing and making the fabulously hilarious tv show Parks & Recreation, which, though it is a smash hit now, was barely noticed and constantly on the verge of being cancelled for the whole first season. But Amy (I think she’d definitely tell me we’re on a first name basis) said they couldn’t focus on that, on worrying and gauging whether or not their show had made it- if they did, they’d wind up quitting out of discouragement. All they could do was put their heads down and do the work. Their only goal was to complete their art.

I don’t have much more to say about this, that’s why this week’s post kind of felt like a strange aside. I usually try to wrap my thoughts up in a brilliant closing paragraph with three bullet points and five adverbs (or something like that), but I think this week I just want to leave you with this one simple thought for your own writing, your own art.

The goal of your art is simply completion. That’s all your art asks of you. That’s all you can really truly give it. How might changing your goals to echo that sentiment change how you approach your art this week, this month, this year?

Ahh, one more aside, so bear with me- I do need to throw in one more sign of “making it” as a writer, and that is…. finally getting a super rad logo for your website! Check out all that fancy lettering up at the top where my old boring logo used to be. That pretty logo you see is new, and my friend Nikki made it and she rules (like her website is actually nikkirules.com for real)- it’s actually her real handwriting up there so thank you, Nikki, for having amazing penmanship on basically your first try. Do you guys know how stressful creating a logo is for someone like me who deals strictly in words and has no visual talent whatsoever? At first I was just like- um, I don’t know, I want something kinda writer-y, and like maybe pretty but not too pretty ‘cause the workshop’s not just for ladies, you know? And Nikki somehow interpreted that and was just like “BAM- you mean like this?”- I imagine her presenting it like a fancy French waiter presents a meal on a silver platter- voila! Does zis pleez zee madam? ..Yes, yes it does.

*Full disclaimer: though I did indeed start out wearing real pants while writing this post, you may have noticed that I left halfway through to get a happy hour cocktail. No, not somewhere fancy- I poured leftover wine into a rinsed out coffee cup in my kitchen, if you must know- not all of us are living the Kardashian lifestyle every day, guys. Anyway, after pouring said wine, it felt ridiculous to continue wearing real pants, like a strange façade I was keeping up when my true self was dying to be let out like the prince inside the Beast. Alas, I caved, but I compromised on wearing leggings instead of sweat pants, which everyone knows you can tuck into a pair of boots and leave your house in without shame these days, so it was basically a win-win all around.

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"
Alexa