Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Possibility

I am going to be a writer again. I almost quit because the electric bill came in and from all indications it appears that I am paying for the moonlight over Virginia; that, in fact, it is not free like the air we breathe but I am its unwitting sponsor. And then the car insurance was due, health insurance careened right behind it, doctor bills, dentist bills, credit card bills came in and I had to get grain and call the blacksmith. I considered resorting to less lofty but more lucrative aspirations.

I’ve quit a hundred times since I realized that I might actually be able to have writing for a job. I start writing and then I get sidetracked. Real life intrudes. I need to make some money. And there is no time to fool around writing stories about languid pools of water (languid being one of my favorite words to stick in a story when I first started out—I managed to use it at least once in every story that I wrote) or unrequited love and suicide (in addition to using words simply because I liked the sound of them, I also favored melodrama—hey, I was young). So I put my writing on the backburner and became other things. I’ve been so many things that I won the award for having the most jobs at my high school reunion. But sooner or later, I get the bug and go back to my writing. At least for a while.

One teacher in my life told me that I could do it. This was my 8th grade teacher Mrs. Marley. She was a little thing, about five feet tall, with a big belly, ready to give birth right there in the classroom, and real pretty like all teachers in elementary school should be. She wrote on one of my compositions, “Debbie, you will make a fine writer someday.” Huh? I never thought of that. No one actually told me that I was good at anything before. Certainly no one told me that I would BE something, like it was a given. When Mrs. Marley told me, it was the first time I realized the possibility and it filled me with excitement and hope.

But none of my other teachers encouraged me. In fact, my writing teacher in my first creative writing class at the local community college, where I took a few classes when Jamie was a baby, burst my bubble about any sort of writing career I might have been fantasizing about. He told me it was practically impossible to make a living at writing and if I needed to make any money at it, I should pick something else to waste my time on because the chances of even a talented writer making it were slimmer than hitting the lottery. Why, just look at him!—an academic who could dissect an Ernest Hemmingway story or a Shakespearean play like an accountant analyzes a profit-and-loss sheet—even HE was barely published. Though I was suspicious, I couldn’t help feeling defeated.

It didn’t help that my parents showed no interest in my writing. No one guided me in that direction even though I came home with the paper from Mrs. Marley saying that I was amazingly gifted and could indeed write the next Great American Novel if only my parents would keep me supplied with typing paper and buy me a pony. No one asked me why I wasn’t taking the college English class in school or why I hadn’t joined the school newspaper. Whenever I hijacked my mother to listen to me read one of my stories out loud, I would stop to take a breath and look up to find her peeking off to the distance, inching towards the sink, itching to go and rearrange the towel on the counter or rinse out a coffee cup, not paying the least bit of attention to my story. She never exclaimed, “Wow! You ARE talented!”

I recently asked my friends in my writer’s group what they thought the chances were of actually making a living at it. Was this a job or just a fun hobby? I had been on a writing frenzy and was producing a large number of essays, what I call my moving-to-the-country stories, some of which were published in the local newspaper, (five out of six that were submitted were published, I should add) but I was having trouble keeping people from infringing on my time. People don’t respect your time when you work from home. Especially when you do something that’s fun. That goes double when you don’t make any money at it. I was on a constant guilt trip turning down invitations from well-meaning friends because I wanted to stay home and write, or feeling pressured to schedule service people at their convenience and not mine because I could not in good conscience say, “I’m working.” Writing from home is too flexible. I’m the boss. I really could take the dog to the vet at eleven o’clock if I wanted to. I could work on the story later. But I wanted to stay on track. Stay disciplined. So I mentioned it to the writer friends. I wanted them to say, “It IS a real job. Treat it that way. Schedule the dog later.” But they were wishy-washy. They agreed we don’t get enough respect and we have to guard our writing time fiercely. But they also warned there’s no money in it. If I was doing it for the money, forget it.

One of them told me that I could do it all. I could take care of the family and the farm and write and get a real job all at the same time. She assured me I really could do it if I organized my time better. For about five minutes I believed her until I remembered I’m so organized I’ve been described as anal and I’m already having a hard time juggling what I’m doing now, never mind adding on an outside job on top of it. I appreciate the confidence she has in my super-woman capabilities but it was not what I wanted to hear.

I don’t need a lot of money. If I could make writing what I would earn working at Wal-Mart, I’d be okay with that. A steady paycheck. Low is okay. Low is worth doing something I love. I’m not asking for a lot. Some would say that I am not asking for enough. That would be Kurt. He is my biggest fan. He tells me, “Stop thinking about getting a job. You’re job is at home writing.” He is so sweet. But he has ulterior motives. He is convinced that when I write a book, he will be able to quit his job and spend his days fishing or riding his Harley because we will have lots of man toys since we will be rich. I don’t have the heart to burst his bubble about the chances of that. Plus, he’s got me thinking—you never know. He makes me feel the potential and the possibility of dreams like Mrs. Marley.

But when my writer friends weren’t very optimistic and then all those bills came colliding in at the same time, I started thinking about maybe I should put the writing on the backburner for a while and sell some stuff on eBay. Maybe I should give riding lessons. Maybe I should go to school and become a nurse even though other people’s naked body parts make me blush. Maybe I should be responsible.

Not only because Kurt is counting on me, but because of my ratio of submissions to acceptances, I think it’s safe to say that I have some talent. But you have to keep going. It’s not like filling out an application to apply for a job and then you get hired and can just go to work. No. It’s like applying for a new job every Monday morning. It’s an ongoing battle. Unless you’re Stephen King or Cormac McCarthy. Part of the job is getting it. Over and over again. But once you do, there’s nothing better than having one that you would do for free.

Which is why the competition is fierce. Which makes it seem even crazier. I barely got out of high school. There are people out there who have degrees that I don’t know what they mean. Even my own daughter. She’s the first one in our family to go to college. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree. What does that mean anyway? All I know is it’s supposed to be better than an Associate’s but not as good as a Master’s. I know nothing about degrees and college. I’m not educated. Who am I to think I can compete against people who are? The ones who would be interested in what I like to write about—slices of life, quirky characters, disturbing, gritty short stories—are people from the other side of the tracks, pot-smoking sheet-rockers, rock-and-roll musicians with no talent, barmaids in taverns, maids in motels, piss-poor cowgirls who spend the rent on horses, Kirby vacuum cleaner salesmen, telemarketers, pyramid schemers, nurse’s aides and tanning salon attendants, probably aren’t big readers. In general. Don’t get mad at me—I was half those things.

Of course I read slice-of-life stories and books about quirky characters.

If only I would have stuck to my writing instead of getting spooked and stopping to get a real job, maybe by now I’d have a book published. Maybe by now I’d be paying sky-high electric bills with the residuals from “Greener Pastures: A City Girl Goes Country.” And Kurt would be on his Harley.

And so I am giving myself half a chance this time and being a writer. Because I will make a fine one. Mrs. Marley said so.


Jamie Ferraioli said...

aah. your stories are like crack. I want, I need. Then they're over and I'm sad and I need some more. I'm going through the same thing with my art, like you know..ESPECIALLY the part where you were saying you have to work on it and it's hard because you're not making money at it yet. People don't understand. My friend Brian got in an arguement with Lou, because he's like you with the writing..Brian said "why don't you just work at Target if you need money so bad. People aren't supposed to like their jobs". He's an accountant. You always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. When I told that to Lou he found it a little hard to believe since no one ever told him that. Don't waste your talent. Things are never going to become unhectic in life, so you can't put writing on the back burner for later. Just go for it! I know you can do it!

Amy Hanek said...

I know you aren't a huge fan of kids, but I substitute teach and find some time to write. I do need to find more discipline in my writing time though with my book deadline looming closer.

Hang in there, write, live, work and pay the bills so they don't repo your computer!

Debi said...

I like kids Amy! I'm just not the neighborhood mother! lol

Seriously, don't forget I have the farm too. In addition to all the farm work, we barrel race and our horses have to be ridden a few times a week to keep them conditioned. It's time consuming. But fun!

Maybe I can just hit the lottery. Yeah, that's it...

Marion said...

Debi, you CAN write, so don't try to make it into a job with regular (or spectacular!) pay.
If you don't already subscribe to Garrison Keillor's daily writers' newsletter, you need to do that. He always includes little bios of writers who found a way to make a living from their writing, sometimes in the most peculiar ways.
Now, GK is someone who never suspected he would achieve his writing dreams by going on NPR and spinning yarns about an imaginary mid-western town and its people. Who knew? And every time he tries to change the formula, he falls on his face, gets back up, and goes back to the original Prairie Home Companion.

Heather Froeschl said...

Debi, you ARE a good writer, so don't even think anything else, and I'm sorry if I was one who dashed any dreams; I believe in being honest about what I've witnessed as a writer and editor. It IS hard but it can be done and is done all the time - making money in publishing. Harley money? It all depends. Treat it like a "real" job? Well it is a real job but it has infinitely more hours...whenever the inspiriation strikes, and that can be 23 hours a day if we let it. Being a writer is a "realer" job than most 9-5's since we live, breathe and sleep it. and since you're an award winning job holder you know that being more than one thing at a time is what we do...farmer, barrel racer, writer, mom, cook, housekeeper, inspiration to others. Keep on keepin' on Hon!
You're doing just fine.

Becky Mushko said...

After hearing many successful commercially pubbed writers at writers' conferences say, "Don't quit your day job," I tend to believe it. (And many of them also said, "You don't need a masters in creative writing," but most of them had a masters in creative writing.

According to novelist Sharyn McCrumb, only 200 novelists in the US make enough money to earn a decent living (as compared to 43 NASCAR cup drivers who make a living at what they do).

I've stopped thinking about writing as a vocation, but I'm having a good time thinking about it as an avocation.

Kristine said...

Well, who am I, but *I* think you can "be" a writer, and I think you can make money at it. I don't think one needs to have a college education--how about perspective, determination, life experience?

You have the advantage that you don't HAVE to go out and financially support your family right now.

(As for your writer friends, perhaps they don't want any competition!)


colleen said...

I love this:
I am going to be a writer again. I almost quit because the electric bill came in and from all indications it appears that I am paying for the moonlight over Virginia.

I retired from a nine year stint providing foster care in my home for an adult with disabilities. I do it just very part time now. I decided I would write, started my blog. After a year I was writing enough to freelance some stuff and this year I actually got a W2 for taxes on my writing income. This year I hope to make more, but I could hardly live on what I'm making. My previous job allowed me to get out of all debt and my husband's job helps a lot. I think of this first year as my master's degree program in writing. I've been getting experience and honing my skills and even getting paid a little. No student loans either.

Keep writing. The more you do it the more it will generate and bear fruit.