Sitting at my desk this morning, while herding two crazy dogs and trying to type up an important email, I accidentally upended a very necessary cup of coffee right down my front. I giggled at the memory of someone telling me that my chosen career was, and I quote, “glamorous”.
This is what people think — that I sit down at this desk every day and conjure up some eloquent muse who directs my fingers to “put this word here”, “write about the stars” or some other fart-busting, yet angelic, thing to do. The romanticisation of writing as a career is, I’m sorry, hilarious. This is it, right here:
A deadline is a deadline is a deadline
That means that, no matter what, you need to meet it. This is why the “surprise teas because you work from home” aggravate us. This is why we can’t “just pop out for a quick lunch with the gals” and, honey, our deadlines are — for 99% of the time — not set by us. While we may work from home, set our schedules and the like, we don’t have a boss to answer to. Yay! Except we do have to answer to ourselves, and to our clients. Think of it this way — you have one boss or manager to answer to, and on any given month, I may have ten clients who need my answers. This creates the unique situation whereby — I have ten bosses. You’ll probably pull — at least a few — all-nighters and, if you don’t, well, you’ll never know the beauty of watching sunrise happen while you’re still trying to find a really useful synonym for “obtuse”.
Just add creativity and stir
You are required to be instantaneously creative, all the time, every day. You will need to ferret out a hook, a line but hopefully, no sinker. Those things that sink you will be self-doubt and a lack of curiosity — more on that, later. Now, every single person has a bad day — a drudge day — whatever you want to call it. Your bad days can’t count, and they can’t affect the work you do. It is also exceedingly difficult to be creative over something you either know nothing about, or don’t really care for, but you will have to be.
Curiosity cannot kill you
Your sense of curiosity needs to be piqued 24/7. Yes, all the time. Here’s what always shocks people when they choose to “become a writer” — a lot of the time, you don’t get to choose what you write about. This can be disheartening to a newbie, but it’s part and parcel of the job. It’s the path you need to travel to become good at what you do. But, it’s for this reason that I like niches, although… we also have to go way beyond our niches. With the right kind of push, great clients and good mentorship, you can and do stretch beyond your niche. I started out thinking I was a “parenting” and “health” writer, but nowadays I’m more “technology” and “finance” because they’re actually something I really enjoy and have learnt a lot about. You will never, ever, ever stop learning, because you have to do it all the time.
Consumed by subject
But you’re not just learning about something when you write about it. No, you’ll need to be consumed by it. My friend and a magnificent mentor once called it akin to “creating artisan bacon”. You’ll need to be consumed by the subject, obsessed with the words you create around it and dedicated to a polished outcome. If you’re not those three things, trust me, it will show. Oh, and you’ll research a topic until it is absolutely the only thing you can think about. Page 25 of Google Search Results? That’s where you live.
This is the thing about creative industries — from performing arts to wordsmithery — you will be criticised. And, while it may take you a while to get there — you’ll need to learn the difference between criticism and feedback. Divvying up the two is really hard at first, because everything feels personal. Remember how I told you that you would need to be consumed by the subject? Well, guess what? Now you need to detach from it and look at the work you’ve created, from an objective standpoint, just so you can understand where and how you could’ve done better. That’s feedback. When it comes to criticism though, you’ll learn to choose which ones you listen to, and which ones you don’t. Here’s a tip — nobody who likes you, loves you or calls you a friend will ever be your biggest, most appropriate or useful critic. Sorry. Also, Facebook likes or positive comments are very sweet, but they are also just pandering to your ego. You’ll need to keep that in check though, because…
You are only as good as the last thing you wrote
Some people sing a hit pop song; have it rock the Christmas charts and everyone buys their album and discovers that everything on that album — barring the one hit wonder — is complete trash. No matter though because, chances are, they can live comfortably off the royalties of their one hit for the rest of their lives. This is not your future, sorry. You are only as good as the last thing you wrote and, in a world where instant publishing, immediate reading and time-dependent creation are a must… you’re probably going to bomb quite a few times. And you’ll bomb hard.
New things beckon
You will never stop looking for new things to do though, and that’s a great source of redemption. While you feel you might’ve failed at X job, you get the chance (if you work hard enough and haven’t given up by now), to give it your all on Y job. Once you’ve created and curated that sense of curiosity, you will never stop looking for new things. Thank goodness, because you’d be bored otherwise. And if there’s one thing a creative person should not be — it’s uninterested. Why? Because you will spiral, very quickly, downwards, from there. Your work quality will bottom out, your passion will wither and, suddenly, doing the crossword will seem like a gargantuan task you can’t be bothered with.
You don’t have to write a book
If I had a Rand for every time someone told me “you should write a book!” I would not have to work ever again. Here’s the thing — (1) Book deals don’t just plop past your desk on their way to the spa for a manicure; (2) Book deals are not a guarantee of wealth, never mind income and 3) Not everybody who writes, wants to write a book. Some of us have zero desire to write a book, and that’s somewhat underpinned by the existence of reasons (1) and (2).
Knowing your worth and your place
Starting out, you will write about anything and everything people will trust you with. You’ll be grateful for this, and enjoy it because it is experience and income. Eventually though, you’ll realise that you are good at some things, not so good at other things and downright terrible at even more other things. Like, I can’t write radio scripts (which is embarrassing as all hell for me because, guess what? My dad had a career as a scriptwriter once). The only way you’ll figure this stuff out though is if you try it. I wish for you a really good mentor and an abundance of opportunities to fail, because you’ll learn more from failures than you will from being congratulated on creating a “good” piece of writing. You will come to the point where you know your worth, and your place. And once you do, you’ll work even harder to expand that place. Just a warning though — this will make you feel like you want to shrivel up and disappear, often. That’s okay. But it is hard.
So, while I sit here in my coffee stained top, writing this out, I giggle again at the ‘glamorous’ appearance this chosen career seems to have. Anyone for coffee?