So Many Decisions

When people find out that I’m a novelist they often have some follow-up questions. This makes sense. Mathematically speaking there aren’t that many of us per capita—like stunt people or tree surgeons—so I’m usually the only novelist that a given person has ever met.

There are a lot of questions about where I get my ideas. I wish I knew; I’d go there more often. Others want to know if there’s any money in writing novels, which is usually when I offer them a ride in one of my Lamborghinis. The question I get most, though, is: “When did you decide to become a writer?”

This is a tough question, because it’s virtually impossible to answer without sounding overly serious, like I should be speaking in a European accent and smoking one of those long, skinny cigarettes. The truth is, I never decided to become a writer, I just always was one. I know, right? Obnoxious.

I’m willing to bet that many of you reading this will recognize the following trajectory, adjusted, of course, for your respective form. I wrote stories and read them aloud to my parents when I was still scribbling in pencil. I started submitting to and being rejected by literary journals during high school. And I took my first crack at a novel-length manuscript in college. I didn’t formally decide to do any of these completely illogical things, I just kinda did them. Writing is the thing, for better or worse (often worse), that I’m meant to do.

That said, I’ve made countless decisions both big and small along the way that have allowed me to continue being a writer. The following are some of the most important ones. If you’ve been at this for a while, I bet you’ll recognize a few of these, too. And if you’re new to writing…well, here’s what you’ve got to look forward to.

I Tried…But Not Too Hard

Unless you’re the descendant of shipping tycoons or British royalty, you probably have a day job. In my early twenties I chose advertising copywriting, and for a few years it was a pretty sweet deal. I’d write brochures, taglines, and radio scripts by day, then I’d work on my own writing at night and on weekends. I was young and inexperienced, and—at least professionally speaking—nobody expected that much from me.

Eventually, though, years of general competence added up, and well-meaning managers started wanting me to do more. (Wait, what?) In the face of potential promotions and increased responsibility, I was forced to make one of my first adult decisions as a writer. I would be good enough at my advertising job to stay employed and properly housed, but I wouldn’t be so good that people wanted to actually put me in charge of things. From that day forward, I kept my head down, I did my work, and I avoided climbing whatever corporate ladders were placed before me.

As easy as this might sound in theory, the trouble with corporate ladders is that there’s often tempting things up there, like more money and prestige and offices with actual doors. I knew myself well enough, though, to know that a more stressful, time-consuming job would slowly and surely cannibalize the energy I needed to focus on the job that mattered most to me: writing novels. To protect the career you want, you may have to undermine—or even sabotage—the one you have.

I Married Someone Who Gets It

Listen, I know, the heart wants what the heart wants, right? We can’t choose whom we do and do not fall in love with, and I’m not here to pick your relationships for you. From personal experience, however, I can tell you that your life will be much easier if you’re with someone who accepts and supports your need to write. And, more importantly, that acceptance needs to be a long-term commitment. For richer or poor (often poorer).

Like the day-job example above, this may seem easy at first. At the beginning of relationships our heads are all foggy and stupid, and we can’t imagine being anything other than supportive to our new partners, and vice versa. Plus, there’s a certain charm in struggling when we’re just starting out. I used to go to parties in grad school where my fellow writers and I would hang our rejection slips on the wall like melancholy home décor.

The trouble with writing, though, is that there’s nothing short term about it. As a writer, you’ll often work very hard and for a very long time and have very little to show for it. Years may pass between even modest successes, and much of your work and effort will seem as if it’s being launched into a blackhole. But, simply put, you have to keep doing it. That’s the gig. And having a person by your side who gets that is essential.

I’m Basically a Recluse

Unlike the two examples above, this one has gotten easier for me as I’ve gotten older. I’m in my mid-forties now, so, aside from my kids’ sporting events, I’m rarely called upon to leave the house. Hell, I’m rarely called upon to put on pants that aren’t fluffy.

When I was younger, though, I had to work hard to defend my writing time. Back then, I treated novel writing like a part time job, so unless I had a damn good reason, I was due at the keyboard Monday through Thursday evenings from 7pm-ish to 10pm-ish and for at least a few hours on Saturdays and Sundays. That meant I had to learn to say no—no to things that in retrospect probably would’ve been fun. Intermural sports and road trips and weeknight concerts downtown and happy hours with friends.

The writer as recluse may be a stereotype, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. To write your book, you have to write your book, and that takes time. The good/bad news: if you say no often enough…people will probably stop asking.

A Bookish Life For Me

Nearly every day someone tells me—usually while sighing and looking tired—that they wish they could read more, or that they used to read so much, or that they can’t remember the last time they read something that wasn’t Twitter. Last year, one of my best friends confessed to me that he hasn’t read any of my books. He was sweet about it, assuring me that it wasn’t personal. He hasn’t read any books by anyone since college. He just…he just can’t do it.

That’s fair. After all, we’re basically living in the Golden Age of Not Reading. We’re busier than we’ve ever been, more tired, more distracted, more caffeinated, and, admittedly, there’s a ton of great stuff on TV. However, to be the best writer that you can be you need to immerse yourself in the written word. Sometimes that will happen naturally; other times it’ll take legitimate effort.

Do I read as much or as often as I wish I did? Of course not. I mean, come on, I have the Internet, too. But I’m always in the middle of reading something. And I bring that something with me wherever I go—to my kids’ practices and the carpool line and the coffee shop. And this isn’t just because I like reading, which, obviously, I do very much. With the right attitude and focus, anything you read can be a professionally taught seminar on an important writing topic. For example, I recently read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is In Trouble and took a deep dive into the power of non-traditional narrators in fiction. After that, I read Delia Cai’s Central Places and saw how effectively writers can use exposition to create context between dramatic action. And right now, I’m studying the blending of classic elements of genre and literary fiction in Rebecca Makkai’s new novel I Have Some Questions for You. There are a million books out there, and each one has something to teach you.

As I said, though, I’m in my mid-forties, and sometimes my eyes get tired. If that ever happens to you, I recommend stepping into your fluffiest sweatpants and turning on HBO. OMG, have you seen The Last of Us?!

What decisions (sacrifices?) have you made over the years to protect your writing? Have those decisions been easier or more difficult to make as you’ve gotten older? Has your need to write ever caused problems in an important relationship? How much are you able to read in this Golden Age of Not Reading? What’s a recent lesson you’ve learned from something you’ve read?