Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
September 2010

Why Your Family Doesn't Want You To Be A Writer

When I was in kindergarten, I knew that I wanted to be a writer. My father didn't doubt that I was capable of this, he just doubted that I could make a good living at it. He is a computer programmer, not an artist, and he doesn't know anything about the world of publishing. There were a lot of careers that he would have steered me away from on the same basis. Professional musician, actor, radio talk show host, and dancer are among them. Again, not because he didn't believe in me. Only because he didn't believe in the professional world associated with those careers.

My other siblings teased me occasionally about my career choice, as well. In college, I remember one of my brothers asking every time he saw me, "So, have you chosen a real major yet?" I took pleasure in reminding this same brother that he had never graduated from college in the first place. But he was never bothered by this because he said that having a college degree just proved that you were willing to follow the rules. It didn't prove you were smart or competent. Actually, now that I look back on this, I think my brother is mostly right.

Now that I am married, I understand why it is so important to have a "real job." I understand that children (and spouses) need to be fed on a daily basis. The mortgage has to be paid, and the car has to have gas to run. My husband is an understanding guy. He was an entrepreneur for a while, but then we realized that one of us had to have a good day job. He decided he was going to be the one, and we have had a regular income since those first, difficult years. That means that we are in a position that I can not worry about my writing income. When it comes, that's great. We can pay off the house, but we don't count on it and we don't live on it. This isn't the only way of doing it, but it has worked well for us.

In the fifteen years since I became serious about writing, I have seen a lot of different compromises with writers and spouses (and sometimes writers married to writers or other artists). I thought it would be useful to write about them for those who feel like they aren't being supported by their families, either emotionally or in other ways, when they say they want to be writers. Why do families do this? Well, take a look at it from their perspective.

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Most of the writers that I know have in common a long list of jobs that they have worked at for a while and then dropped. Many of the writers I know are serial college students, meaning that they spend ten years getting their first degree, and have gone back repeatedly for different college degrees of various flavors. They're good at training for jobs, not so good at doing them. They like to learn, but not do.

Furthermore, writers do not like to follow rules. We like to think up rules. We like to think about rules and what is good about them and what is bad about them. We like to innovate. A lot. We do not like to do the same thing every day. We get bored easily. We like to tell other people how they could do things better, even if those people have no interest in doing things better. Sometimes we make our fellow employees look bad because we are doing too much. Other times we make our employers look bad because they are not being careful about certain things that we know that they should be careful about.

As spouses, we are not necessarily the best choice for many reasons. There is a lot of stress involved in moving jobs, and what about budgeting and saving for the future? What about health insurance? I know, budgeting solely with a writer's income is almost impossible. The first few years, you get advances, but probably not royalties. You can't control always when your next book will sell. Your editor may leave her job. Your house may drop you for reasons that have nothing to do with your writing (the economy, for example). Even as an established writer, you may be surprised by a publishing house going bankrupt or not paying you on time even if you deliver your manuscript on time. An agent may skip out without sending on a check to you. It happens to the best of writers.

In addition to the sheer financial problems that are associated with being a writer, there are other problems. Writers are stereotyped as being dreamy or artistic or not very well grounded. How many famous writers have suffered with depression? How many have committed suicide? If it's the profession that draws the personality or determines it, I don't know, but there is a connection. If you notice you are having problems with this, your family has probably been noticing it for some time. Think about how you will deal with this issue. Do you need medication? Therapy? A lot of long walks? Don't just expect the people around you to put it up with a long-term bad attitude.

Writers are sometimes known for neglecting their relationships with significant others, or with children. They are busy writing, you see. Or researching. Or whatever. Being writers. But that doesn't give you a carte blanche to ignore other people. You should have friends who are not writers. You should be able to enjoy things unrelated to writing. Maybe you should have a hobby that will get you out with other people. And you are not allowed to push off your responsibilities at home with the excuse that you are going to write. The dishes still have to be done, the laundry folded, the kids helped with homework or driven to activities. Sit down and think about who will do what, and be responsible. If you are not making the full income to support the family, you may need to be taking over with other things more, no matter who you think should traditionally do that job, men or women.

Some other realities: Writers tend to be sedentary. That means overweight and prone to other health problems. This is not a good thing. Yes, other jobs are also sedentary, but they tend not to be all-consuming.

Also, writers must have enormous self discipline. You may not think of writers as a group as being self-disciplined, but they are. At least the ones who really write are, not the ones who think about writing and don't get any actually done. No one tells a writer when to start or when to finish or really how to write (even advice columns like this are a poor substitute for a manual on writing). This can be very difficult for some people who are used to going into a job and being told what to do every day. And that is almost everyone, really. Even though writers don't like being told what to do, that doesn't mean we are eager to sit down and get work done. We all come from the same public school system, where you don't do anything until the deadline is looming. I don't recommend this as a habit if you are a serious writer. Do your work!

Writers have expensive habits. Yes, we all know about the library, but most writers I know are also bibliophiles. We like to own our books. We want to be able to sit in a room with them and feel the good book vibe that emanates from their spines. We like to own the copies of books that we loved when we read them first. We like to buy books that we want to read more than once. We need books for our research and just to feel good about ourselves and the world. And books are the cheapest purchase that writers make. What about if you are doing a book set in Ireland? Do you need to fly there? Do you need to try out rafting if you're writing a book about it? Do you need to do an Ironman yourself?

Furthermore, if you think it's hard to be in a writing group and give an equal dose of encouragement and criticism, think about being the child or spouse of a writer who is asked to read something in an early draft. What do you do? How do you react if you hate it? What if it's just not your cup of tea? What if the writer expects you to give them help on how to fix it? You may not be married to someone who wants to do that for you, or you may have to train them for it, step by step, gently. Just because they love you doesn't mean that they will be able to help you with this part of your life. Just because they love you, they won't love everything you write.

It is not easy to be the family of a writer. We want support, but we don't want false optimism. We want a stable spouse who makes a good income. We also want someone to share our love of reading and who will help us by being able to give a good critique of our own writing. It is a difficult job, possibly more difficult than being a writer. Have some sympathy for your family. They put up with you, too.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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