On the Perils of Writing for a Living (Or, Rolling with the Punches)

On the Perils of Writing for a Living (Or, Rolling with the Punches)

Jan 24, 2013

So I have this terrible fear that all this work won’t be enough.

I realize that I’m in my 30’s now, which is, historically speaking, the prime time folks have to start collecting and putting away cash for the future. Statistically speaking, I’ve got about 15 years less of old age than other folks (chronic illness and all that), but I come from a long-lived family, so even if I chop 15 years off that, it still means I should be around until I’m at least 80 or so.

I’m reminded of Chuck Wendig’s post where he talks about the privilege of being a writer, and how his dad was a coal miner and his grandfather was a farmer, and yeah, sure, writers have to work a lot, but comparatively speaking, we don’t have to work physically hard. Not coal-miner hard. Not back-breaking, body-busting hard.

And it’s true. Even if we weren’t able to keep up some semblance of fitness and keStopDropRoll-300x206ep our desk happily ergonomic, the physical strains of writing aren’t anything you could compare to the work of most of our forebears.

My parents worked in fast food for 25 years. It was physically demanding work. Not farming or coal mining, or anything like that, but pretty shitty work that involved being on your feet all day, covered in grease and getting verbally abused by strangers in a fast-paced, high-stress environment.  It was a life of closing late, and working on weekends and holidays when the rest of the world was at play. I have very fond memories of mopping the floors at one of the restaurants on Christmas Eve as a young child, working with my mom and her crew to clean up the place after the doors closed so we could all get out of there faster.

It wasn’t a bad life in comparison to many, but it was a life my parents didn’t want me to emulate. They all but forbid us from applying at fast food places as teens. They only half-mockingly threatened to disown us if we didn’t go to college. College was the ticket to a cushy desk job with weekends and holidays off, health benefits, and regular paychecks that didn’t vary based on how many shifts you’d picked up that week.

When you’re a kid with a good relationship with your parents, I think you can’t help but want to be like them. If my parents were other people, maybe having us work as a manager at the local fast food joint would have satisfied them, but they had always wanted more for themselves, and so they wanted more for us. They knew where fast food led. Exhausted bodies. No vacation. Low pay. Low status.

So I went to college. I picked up jobs doing all sorts of things – I worked at a movie theater, a healthfood store, and even cleaned up dog kennels for six months (this was a weekend job I took while holding a second job during the week. I started dreaming of cleaning dog kennels at night, too). I worked briefly as a waitress as well, work that was just as soul-crushing as fast food, with it’s constant running around, high stress, and verbally abusive patrons and management. I got to have the strange experience of having my telephone service shut off, and nearly had my electricity severed, too. I got evicted from my apartment.

I figured that if the glamorous working class life wasn’t working for me, I should probably shift gears, put on my big girl pants, and get to college in earnest.

I’d done my first two years while scraping along with those jobs and getting help from parents and relatives just to afford the paltry community college costs. I also had help by getting enrolled in a program through my high school that let me take community college classes during my high school years, paid for with public funds from the high school.

To complete my final two years, I had to take out $25k in student loans, and that was just to go to a “normal,” publicly-funded college. I still have about $12k of that to pay back.

I started taking different jobs in college. I worked at the library. Then I worked for the University Press. When I came home between college and grad school, I worked in the billing department for an online electronics company. I took on a lot of administrative positions through temp agencies.

I’d become a desk jockey.

My first post-college job was really dull, but it had the sort of security my parents hoped we’d have. It was only in that moment, when I signed the offer letter, that I realized what they had been trying to do all this time. Because now I had three weeks of vacations, paid holidays, and a cushy chair to sit in all day while I updated spreadsheets and put together PowerPoint Presentations. I wasn’t working at Walmart or the local gas station or the local McDonald’s (though I admit that before I started freelancing, I’d often consider getting a second job at one of these places to help pay off my debts).

I didn’t get really in trouble with money, though, until I got sick. Looking back, I kind of had a really shitty HR Manager that should have told me I could apply for short-term disability during my hospital stay and the first few weeks of my illness. Instead, I had to go back to work less than two weeks later because I was out of vacation time. “I can’t afford to be sick,” I thought, without realizing that the very system I’d dialed into had a way to help me that I just didn’t know about.

I went back to work, because the bills were piling up.

And piling up.

I had some generous help from the parents of my then-girlfriend, which helped defray a chunk of the medical costs, but every time I thought I’d paid all my bills, some other bill would appear. Then another… and another… and another… To make matters worse, when I signed up for insurance in January as (I thought) a healthy 26-year-old woman, I’d chosen the shittiest plan possible, which meant I had a huge deductible, huge copays, and crappy percentage of all costs that I had to pay on the life-sustaining drugs I now had to take for the rest of my life.

I was also not the world’s most sanest person during this time, and once I racked up an extra few thousand on my credit card, a few thousand more for travel seemed fine. After all, I was probably going to die soon anyway, right? And more money blew out the window.

The trouble with being faced with your own mortality – experiencing near-death – meant that money meant less to me, too. I could be dead right now. I had to get out and fuck around and fuck off as much as I could before I was hit by a bus or something.

I was a nutjob for a while after this. It’ll come as no surprise that I wrote the bulk of GOD’S WAR during that year I was dying, fueled by a constant stream of whiskey and thick, sticky dreams that I would later realize were the result of having a bloodstream toxically saturated with glucose. It took me about a year to recover, and by that time I’d been laid off from my cushy day job, fell out with my girlfriend, and become homeless. I was staying rent-free in Dayton with some friends who had graciously helped me toss all my things into a truck which they then drove five and half hours south to Dayton, because I didn’t have a current license (no need, in Chicago). And lo, I put all the moving expenses onto those ever-growing credit cards (I had three by this time).

It was three months before I landed a new cushy job. By that time I was living on expired insulin and using the emergency room as my primary care doctor (at least one bill, for a sprained ankle, was never paid). I had gone from cushy, but boring job to homeless chronically ill person trying to survive on temp jobs and credit cards and emergency rooms. It transformed my whine about the long, three-hours-a-day commute I had in Chicago to a happy memory of better times.

But I got very lucky. I knew how to write. I had some degrees, too.

And when a temp job came knocking, asking for a writer, I wrote up a few samples and sent them off. Though I’ve had some up-and-down times since then, I haven’t been unemployed more than a week since then, way back in 2007 (in Kameron years, that’s a long time).

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The trouble is, ever since then, I’ve been working hard to try and ensure I never get to that place again. Now I write. And I write. And I write. I write for money. I write to pay off debt. I write to pay the mortgage. I write to feed the dogs.

But no matter how hard I work, I realize that I can never actually avoid what happened to me back in 2006. I don’t have control over sudden onset chronic conditions, or cancer, or getting hit by a bus. I have no control over any of it, no matter how hard I work. And that’s… disconcerting. And it makes me… want to work more.

I’m tired, I won’t lie. I probably said “yes” to too many projects the last few months. I’m probably not writing enough fiction. And that’s the thing, really. I just never feel like it’s enough. I’m never doing enough. Because you never CAN do enough.

There’s a lot of churn in this business. It’s like opening and closing the damn fast food restaurant every day. Every time you wash it down, you have to wash it down again the next day. Work and wash, work and wash.

Sometimes I think the reason I gnaw over all this churn is because I’m NOT cleaning dog kennels right now. I’m at a very… weird place. I’m at this terrifying place where I’m so close to getting up out of this crazy bullshit place I got to back in 2007, but the idea of being out of that, of moving on, is such a foreign thing to me that I can’t process it. Tomorrow is pay day. How come I still have money in the bank? How come I’m not charging random necessities to credit cards every month anymore?

Last year, for the first year ever, I made more money than either of my parents had made individually in a year. And to realize I’d done that was very… strange.

I hear a lot from other people about the fear of failure. The thing is, the fear of failure isn’t that fearful when you’re nothing. When you have nothing. I have never been more brash in my life than I was after I was laid off and newly diagnosed with a chronic illness, homeless and living at a friend’s place in Dayton, Ohio. I had nothing to lose. I had no further to drop. I was go up or die.

And maybe that’s why life feels so heavy right now. Because I have so much more to lose than I did back in 2007.

And I know, I know… if you lose it, you just start over. You get on with it. You run up your credit cards again. You crash on people’s couches. You live out of your car.

But I feel like I’m on the cusp of something, here. I feel like there’s something more than long strings of shitty jobs and living on friends’ couches and barely scraping by to look forward to. So I keep working… and I keep working. And working.

I’m not sure when I’ll feel comfortable enough to let off the pedal. Ok, I think, maybe when I’m 40? Or earning six figures? Or have 800k in 401(k)?

There’s a great duology by Octavia Butler starting with The Parable of the Sower. It’s about this woman who starts a religion that is based around the idea that God is change, and the one constant in life is change, and they must accept it and learn how to keep going in the face of it.  It’s a concept I’m quite intimate with, and it’s why I always start to doubt myself just when I’m feeling the most confident. I’m worried that the change will come, and it will be a bad one – it’ll be back to credit card debt and couches.

But what I rarely consider is the good kind of change. The epic changes. The amazing jobs, the great opportunities, the book deals and cool people and great relationships. I’ve experienced the good kind of change the last few years, and it’s a lovely place to be. It’s a lovely future to hope for.

I’ll be interested to see which way the wind blows over the next decade.

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