on becoming a writer, part four: final, for now

Part One here.

Part Two here.

Part Three here.

I should clarify that my frustrations with freelance writing weren't about trying to support myself. I never expected to quit my day-job. In fact I always felt that having a steady source of income that was separate from writing was liberating: it allowed me to write only about subjects I cared about, and to turn down work I didn't want. It would have been highly unrealistic to try to make a decent living on freelancing, and I was fine with that. Our combined day-jobs gave us an income level we were comfortable with, and income I earned from writing was bonus money, usually used for travel. (Travel that had been completed a year or more earlier!)

My frustration stemmed from having found genres of saleable writing that I loved and was good at and wanted to do more of... then finding few or no opportunities to continue. I loved writing educational videos, but when the production company I worked with was sold, I couldn't break into another. I loved writing long feature stories, but the paying market for those was shrinking and disappearing.

So I returned from Ireland with a renewed sense of myself and my craft, apart from the external validation of being published. I was glad I had spent that time building my career. I learned a lot, and I proved myself to myself. But now I needed to step back from the frustrations of the business.

Over the next few years, I wrote and edited for the launch of Kids On Wheels, a unique opportunity that tapped into many of my strengths. I continued to write for New Mobility, and to pitch stories to other magazines when an idea compelled me. I also spent two years researching what I hoped would be a nonfiction book, an idea that ultimately didn't work out.

We decided to emigrate to Canada, began the process of applying, and I began the gradual process of pulling up stakes in New York.

* * * *

A few months before we moved, truly out of nowhere, I was offered a huge writing project. (The initial contact came through volunteering and activism.) I was one of several writers creating a junior encyclopedia series; I had a title on ancient civilizations. Those who go all the way back with wmtc may remember "Ancient Civs," as I always call it. The fee was substantial, as it was full-time work, and I had to churn out copy under extremely tight deadlines.

I must digress to note that this was probably the most pressured time of my entire life. Our application to Canada had been accepted and we were knee-deep in planning our move. Our dog Buster was critically ill, which was both time-consuming and emotionally wearing. And now, during my last months in New York City, I'd be writing like mad all week, then working on weekends on my law firm job. It was insane.

The money I earned writing Ancient Civs allowed us to not work for six weeks after arriving in Canada, an incredible and unexpected gift.

And even better, I loved it. I absolutely loved the work. It was so satisfying, and I was very good at it. After we moved, I was offered an additional piece as an emergency editor, and was told my work was "masterful". I was offered a second book title, which meant writing full-time for the first time in my life. I was thrilled.

Then Disney killed the project.

And that was that.

* * * *

After getting over the shock - and getting a job, and all that entailed - I tried to find similar work. I had to conclude that it cannot be done.

When I was first breaking into writing professionally, people told me that I couldn't break in cold - that it was all about who you knew, and without connections, I'd find no work. Yet Allan and I both did just that: we broke in, cold.

But in this market - nonfiction for youth, either videos or books - even with experience, I couldn't do it. If there was a way, I would have found it. But I could find none. It seemed like the work either dropped in my lap or didn't exist.

After moving to Canada, I was also writing for Kids On Wheels magazine. I was the associate editor and the principal writer. I enjoyed it very much, but after a few years of quarterly publication, it started to feel like a poorly paid part-time job. Since I also had a day-job, KOW became the only writing I did, and the time involved kept me from exploring other ideas. I resigned. Some time later, the magazine folded, so even if I had stayed with them solely for the income, the job would have ended anyway.

Once again, unsustainable success.

The other writing I want to do, writing a nonfiction book for a general audience, would require years of substantial research. Without a contract and advance funding, it's a highly speculative venture. Knowing what's involved, I find myself unwilling to invest the time, dedication and resources without a publisher. I don't know if that speaks of a lack of motivation or just common sense, but at this point in my life, I'm unwilling to do it.

So there I am. When I look at all I've written as a whole - books, videos, articles, personal essays, travel journals, this blog - I see a large body of work. On the other hand, I know my potential, especially writing for young people, is so much more.

Both Ancient Civs and Kids On Wheels were great experiences. It doesn't matter if they didn't lead to other work. The work was very fulfilling, people benefited from my efforts (or would have, in the case of Ancient Civs), and I grew as a person and a writer.

There just isn't enough of it.

It isn't enough anymore to scrounge around for freelance work, write the occasional article, and do my day-job. And now the day-job that served me so well all those years has deteriorated, making the whole package unsatisfying.

* * * *

The internet plays a huge role in this story. For writers the internet has been a mixed blessing.

The boon is obvious. No intermediary decides whether or not your work is publishable. You have direct access to your audience and free rein for your thoughts. You can write as much as you like, explore any idea, and probably get some immediate feedback.

The downside may not be visible unless you write professionally or are trying to.

In a culture where everyone is accustomed to getting everything for free, no one wants to pay for anything, and certainly not for writing, which is now more abundant than ever. Paying markets online are very rare. Those that do pay often offer token amounts. This, in turn, has driven down fees in the print market.

Being paid decently for quality writing has always been a challenge. Now, unless you are an established big name, it's nearly impossible.

There are other downsides, too. Editors have gone the way of typewriters and locomotives. Professional editing has great value to both writer and audience, but there's no time for that now. Why pay someone to improve "content" that's a mere snowflake in the information avalanche.

* * * *

Now I'm looking at a new career. The original idea was a different way to support my writing, swapping legal document production for librarianship. But now I'm thinking about a career that would be satisfying enough and pay well enough to do full-time. Being a young-adult or children's librarian would be more career than job. So what happens to my writing? And then, what happens to my identity?

The standard response of "You'll always be a writer because that's who you are," however well intentioned, is insufficient. It's just something I'll have to learn in the doing.

* * * *

Two little anecdotes before I close, neither of them online, so you'll have to take my word for it.

When Joseph Heller died, I read a conversation with an esteemed editor, retired from one of the preeminent publishing houses of American fiction. He said that Catch-22 never would have been published today. The original manuscript needed too much work. Today it would just be rejected.

I heard Doris Lessing read and speak in New York City. She told a story of an experiment she performed. While her publisher was waiting for her to complete the next book in her contract, she sent the manuscript to her editor under a pseudonym as an unsolicited manuscript, known in the business as "the slush pile". It was returned to her with a form letter. Too this, too that, not enough of the other.

Three months later, she submitted the exact same manuscript under her own name. Her editor praised it as her best work in ten years.

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