Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Toad Love
(or The Adulterer's Guide to Writing)

By Alison Sinclair

2002, Alison Sinclair 

Why should I let the toad work

Squat on my life?

Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork

And drive the brute off?

           - Philip Larkin

 

Medicine is my wife, but writing is my mistress.

           - Anton Chekov

 

In my own more black-humored moments, I'm prone to joke that I'm a two-career family. I've been a research scientist, a medical resident, and now a medical writer -- and I've been a part-time professional SF writer (hey, I've earned enough to pay tax!) for six years.  I have four novels published, one submitted, a second nearly finished, and a third embarked upon.  Plus I have a list of wanna-writes as long as my arm and representing about three times my present life expectancy. I have had my years of yearning to write full time. For one year, between years in University, I tried it. I didn't like it. I was broke, trying to live on a modest advance, I was bored, and I was alternately lonely and misanthropic. My ferment-and-gush working method did not lend itself to a daily shift in the word-factory.  On the other hand, I don't think I could give up writing if I tried, and I like being published. So I've had, perforce, to come to terms with the toad. 

So this is an article about not writing for a living. About doing things the hard way -- or, depending upon your perspective, maybe the easy way. For me at least, there was a fair learning curve as I worked out what did and did not work, and why. I admit that I'm writing from a bias, as I've been spoiled: I was born into a family where education was valued and money for schooling was readily available. It was never assumed that I would just make do until marriage. So I've been often overworked, sometimes underpaid, but never undereducated or underemployed.  I'm also single, with neither kid nor cat. That said, I'd like to go into the pluses and minuses of the one-person-two-career lifestyle, the characteristics of an ideal writer's job, and a handful of survival tips that are the legacy of bitter experience. 

The Plusses of Having a Job 

1.   Money. The average first novel earns a few thousand dollars and the average fiction writer's yearly income comes out to about that. The "day job" buys secure and quiet space, equipment and resources ranging from reference books to Internet access to travel. It gives the writer a respectable front for dealing with banks and mortgage lenders. It also buys eventual retirement, though no writer should ever put off writing until retirement. Life is not that certain. 

2.   Expertise and experience.  Someone -- I cannot remember who -- once observed that, unlike mainstream fiction, SF was about work. It's true. Even the unemployed or dropout protagonists in SF (and fantasy, too) will be participants in an underground economy. It's often through their work that trouble finds them, when they take on a fraught, dangerous, or dubious job. The experience of work is useful to a genre writer on several levels. Practical knowledge of a field can be tapped for speculation or translated into a different form. Awareness of the culture and socialization process at work can be exploited to build societies and organizations. People, personalities, and politics can be borrowed, adapted, caricatured, and extrapolated. You'll have a sense of the power of economics over human lives and the ability to speak with authority about one or more areas of human endeavor.  

3.   Buffering. The month my UK publisher dumped me, I was the ICU resident during the worst 'flu/pneumonia season for a decade. I opened the letter, shrugged, and headed out the door for another 28-hour shift of trying to keep people alive until their lungs healed up. All things in perspective. Work can buffer you against the reversals of your writing fortunes, and writing can buffer you from the reversals of your work fortunes.  

4.   Structure. I was not born organized. I compensate obsessively and fake it well at times, but without some kind of external structure to my life I waste an inordinate amount of time. Working makes my writing time efficient. It also suits my rather peculiar rhythm. I write in bursts, as scenes come clear. In between -- for a day or several -- I need something to keep me occupied while things ferment! One of the attractions of my present job is the twenty-minute walk to work. Walking shakes up the fermentate most effectively and all kinds of things bubble up.  

5.   Stimulation, whether mental or social. Some writers have tried the full-time freelance route and bailed because they missed the social life of work, the human contact and stimulation. For myself, it's the mental stimulation I feed on. When I'm running on a deadline and going a little bit zany, that's when my characters really want to come out and play. 

6.   Creative freedom. Pat Murphy argued for this -- at the time she was working in the Exploratorium in San Francisco. If you're not relying on your writing for an income, you can take more risks, work farther into ideas before you present them, and are not tied to the whims of the market. You can do what Marie Jakober does and routinely put aside a first draft until your mind is clear of what Le Guin called "the book in the head" and you can edit what's actually on the paper and not what's in your mind.  

The Minuses of Having a Job 

1.   The time crunch. There is no escaping the brutal truth: There's only a set number of hours in the week. Whatever kind of writer you are, you will have less time and energy available to research and write.  You will almost certainly take longer to perfect your craft, your overall output will be smaller, and you will have less time to participate in the fan and writing community, so you will be at a disadvantage for receiving recognition early in your career. Social activities will compete with writing time. Exercise time will complete with writing time. Sleep will compete with writing time. Life will compete with writing time. You won't be able to set your own schedule, and you'll go into work with scenes bubbling over in your head, hoping they don't go flat before you get them out. A flat scene is like a flat beer. 

2.   Energy, ditto (and see below).  

3.   The Moral Majority Attitude. This is the one that says that if you're not doing one thing and one thing alone, you're not "committed" and not "dedicated" enough. It's the one that said to women that they couldn't be writers and mothers. I've met it in research science, and I've met it among writers. It's more an irritant than a minus, but there are bosses -- and writers -- who seem to have a "forsaking all others" expectation, and they will be at best unhelpful and at worst, obstructive. Avoid 'em, if possible.  

A Writer's Best Job

 Writers have held every job known and have probably invented a few in their ceaseless quest for the truly writing-friendly job. In Toads: Australian Writers: Other Work, Other Lives (yes, that's where the title comes from), Andrew Sant collected contributions from writers on their working life which ranged from recognizable single-career tracks to random walks across the employment roster: clerical work, social work, teaching, dog-walking, stevedoring, construction, furniture removal, scientific research, delivering post, selling door to door -- whatever was needed and on hand at the time. Stirring around in my memory, I turned up Kathy Page, who trained as a carpenter to support her writing, P.D. James, who wrote her first novels from six to eight in the morning before going on to her civil service job, Dorothy L. Sayers, who started out as an advertising copywriter, computer-boffins like Greg Egan, and various scientist-writers, like David Brin and Gregory Benford .  There is also a clutch of physician-writers starting at least as far back as the fourteenth century and including William Carlos Williams and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  

What makes a good job for a writer? The basic answer is a job that the writer can do and still produce the writing they wish to produce. Beyond that, it depends almost entirely on the person, although to me there are those two general factors in the equation: time and energy.  

First, time. How much time does the job claim -- really?  Consider the expectation of unpaid overtime, work-related socializing, commuting, travel (evenings spent in hotel rooms), time 'on call', hours worked to pay for a work wardrobe, breakfasts, lunches, car for commuting, other expenses. A 'good job' leaves you enough time after work and other commitments to produce written material, given your work style. Keep in mind whether a good day's work is 200 words or 4000, whether the first draft is a straight-to-copy-edit-gem (I hate you!) or a dog's breakfast, whether you feel compelled to look up every bit of detail in a textbook or wing it on sheer imaginative brio -- in other words, how long you will take to produce each manuscript. A 'good job' also gives you useful time to write.  It doesn't require you to be at your desk at the crack of dawn if you only work well in the mornings -- to stay  late if you work in the evenings. My ideal job -- which I don't have yet -- involves flextime, so that I could bank time while things are fermenting, and catch the flow when the cork pops! 

Second, energy. Writing requires emotional, physical and mental energy, and a 'good job' for a writer is one that does not suck any one of those tanks dry. People's tanks have different capacities. My mental-energy tank is the largest; I have very seldom been mentally exhausted, or even mentally fatigued. My emotional-energy tank is shallowest. Work that requires sustained "emotional labour" leaves me depleted.  Hence I have gravitated towards work that draws most heavily on the nearly-bottomless mental-energy tank, but spares my shallower tank, so that after nine hours at work I usually have the resources left for another two to four hours writing. Your mileage may vary: if you're an extravert, you may need to work around people to keep you stimulated and your energy up. You may find that you cannot sustain day-and-night intellectual effort, and need to seek out a job that makes physical but not mental demands. 

On a related tack, should a writer do a writing job, or a job as far removed from writing as possible? It's possible to make a writing-based living in journalism, technical, scientific, or medical writing, or in academia. Some writers have dug themselves comfortable niches in these fields; others would rather work construction, move furniture, clean houses, or wait tables. Having started as a medical writer a mere two months ago, I've noticed that the words come more easily, my typing speed has notched up some more -- and that my eyes feel like they've been rolled in sand. It may be allergies, but more likely it's that eight plus one to five hours a day of computer work. You win some, you lose some.  

Survival tips 

1. Keep your skills current. If your employer is parsimonious about education and skills training, seek out your own. If the job goes sour, up-to-date skills will help you you find another job in short order.  

2.  Stay out of (needless) debt. Consumer culture promotes the belief that buying is a creative act. It is perilously easy to succumb at any time, but particularly so when your writing's in a slump, your self-esteem is at subbasement level, and your novel has all the appeal of 5-day-old potato peelings. Occasional mall-therapy and a month or so in the red is okay; however, a habit of buying could land you in a cycle of working at a job that's killing your writing to pay the bills incurred from spending to make you feel creative. 

3.  As early as is possible, build up an escape fund of six months' or so living expenses. This is your take-this-job-and-shove-it money, for when you need to get out for your sanity or your writing's sake. If need be, hide it even from your nearest and dearest. Break it only for frank emergencies, and then make it a priority to replenish it. (And should I have failed to persuade you of the joys of the adulterous life, the lack of debt coupled with the savings could buy you that precious year of revision and writing the next novel when you get a contract.) 

Sant, Andrew. Toads: Australian Writers: Other Work, Other Lives. Allen and Unwin Ltd, Sydney, 1992. ISBN 1-86373-183-0