In Praise of the Part-Time Writer
More than one professional writer has urged those who aspire to follow in his or her footsteps to abandon the short story and get busy writing novels. It's the only way to have anything like a chance of making a living at this crazy pursuit, or so the argument goes. I buy it, too. It makes perfect logical sense. But logic doesn't always win out when you're a part-time writer, whether by choice or circumstance. I've written one novel, and I'm well into a second, but I'll tell you, it's tough to bring a long, complex narrative together in one's non-existent spare time. And it can feel like you're putting all of your marbles in one pouch (except for those you lose along the way). I don't believe that writing a novel is inherently more difficult or rewarding than writing a couple dozen short stories, but it does require a level of ongoing consistency that isn't necessarily imposed on a collection of short fiction. And you can reasonably aim to crank out a minimum of half a dozen quality short pieces in a year, no matter how busy the rest of your life is (more or less). That's enough to keep your name out there and foster a reputation. But when you hunker down and commit to a novel, you disappear from view, like the victim of a nighttime drowning observed nonchalantly from the shore. If we're talking nine months to a year, maybe that's not the end of the world. If you have a handful of short stories awaiting publication, they might be enough to carry you through until your novel is complete. However, if you're not in a position to make writing your sole focus, it can take considerably longer than a year to produce a novel that you're proud of from top to bottom. Anything over a year is a problematic time frame, as far as I'm concerned. But you know what the light is at the end of this tunnel? The writing itself. If you write with any degree of seriousness, its probably out of an inner need to create. Maybe there were other viable outlets you could have plugged into, maybe not. Regardless of how it went down, writing has become your thing. Congratulations. Being a part-time writer sucks the life out of you. It's hard work that only pays off some of the time, and it leaves you with a woeful lack of time on your hands for other activities. But one thing the part-time writer is not in danger of becoming is the guy who puts off writing altogether until after retirement, thinking that he has dozens of novels inside him, just waiting to burst forth once he leaves the working world behind him for good. That guy is delusional. What he's ignoring is the simple truth that practice makes perfect—or at least it makes us better and brings us ever closer to the brass ring that is, for most of us, a full-time writing career. And practice is the only thing that does that. Publishing nothing but short stories until you start walking with a cane and popping more pills than you can easily remember the names of may not be your best-case scenario, but it probably isn't your worst, either. At least you'll be in a position to meet your golden years with sharp skills and realistic expectations. Even if you decide to do little more than write the memoir that's been tapping you on the shoulder for years, you'll be in a position to cobble that sonofabitch together in such a way that one or two of your relatives might actually enjoy reading it. In other words, you won't run screaming at the sight of a blank sheet of paper. It's true that writing is a punishing calling. It takes and takes and takes some more. It has no consideration for your friends, your loved ones, or your comfort, and the odds are always against you. If you acknowledge all of that and go on writing anyway ... you're probably out of your mind. Welcome to the funny farm. Being here grants us certain freedoms. We can cluck like chickens and howl like wolves. We can fight like heroes or bolt like cowards. We can say and do all the things we never can in life. We can be the Don Juans we wish we were and slay the foes we wish we could. All without giving a single thought to production budgets or creative compromise. So hold on to the tail of this tiger and laugh when it bashes you into the occasional tree. The tiger's course is rough and fast, but the scenery along the way is often breathtaking. Besides, if you were to let go now, you'd never find your way back to civilization. They probably wouldn't have you anyway, now that you've gone feral. Better to stay the course and trust to the Fates.