A friend of mine dropped by this afternoon to return a book, and I was so happy to see her. She had her kids in the car, so we didn’t talk long, but we caught up for a few minutes and when I walked her back out, I was able to see her little guy sleeping in his car seat and her daughter’s sweet grin.
She asked what I was up to, and I explained where I was with my latest project. She listened kindly for a moment and then she asked, “Does it feel like work?”
I know what she’s asking. The short true answer is yes, it does, but it’s work that I love, just as teaching was work I loved, with some great days and some awful ones. It’s work in that it isn’t easy, and the hours are long, and I get paid for it.
The long true answer is no, I’ve never had any work like this. This is sprawling, consuming activity unlike any other job I’ve ever had.
One difference is the clock. With teaching, I unlocked my classroom door by 7:05 each morning, and then the rush continued pretty much non-stop until 3:00 or 5:30, whenever I wrapped up at school. After dinner, I’d put in a couple more hours of prep and grading, and on weekends, I graded more. Even when I was off my teacher clock, I felt a constant, low-grade, conscientious buzz of worry that I needed to get to my grading piles or figure out some support for a student who concerned me, so I was hardly ever able to truly let my work go. I tried to. I thought it would be healthier for me if I could, but by June each year, I was fairly burned out.
Now, with writing, I’m always doing it. I wake up thinking about my latest project, and if the ideas can’t wait, I reach over for my laptop and get them down before I’m out of bed. I mumble out dialogue in the shower, and bring the thesaurus to the breakfast table so I can keep thinking about titles. I settle into my spot on the library couch with my computer on my lap and revise. When I look up at the clock, it’s 2:00, and I discover I forgot lunch. I forget dinner similarly until my husband comes home. In the evening, I write again, or if instead I watch something on TV with my family, I usually have my computer on my lap so I can write if the show gets too boring. I try to take weekends off because I suspect it would be healthier for me if I could, but when I’m immersed, it hurts to stop writing, so I don’t.
Mainly, I’m working on novels, but if I’ve met my quota of first-draft pages for a day or revised as far as I can, I’ll switch over to writing a tie-in short story, a blog, or an article. Other than that, I might answer a set of interview questions, or catch up with email. At the edge of my writing is my related reading: I read novels that I’ve been invited to blurb for, and others by fellow writers I’ll meet on tour or on a panel.
Deadlines? Yes, they add some pressure sometimes, but they’re usually reasonable. Isn’t writing a crazy business and aren’t you anxious about the uncertainty of publishing? I’m just not that anxious. I know I’m doing the best I can with my writing, and I have faith that my agent will represent me well. If my writing doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and I’ll go look for another job, just as I would if I couldn’t teach anymore.
When I come back to my friend’s question, I realize it has little to do with the hours I keep, or what I actually do, or how much I worry. My friend wants to know if writing full-time feels like work.
No. It doesn’t. Writing feels like what I want to do all the time, even when it’s driving me mad. It feels like I’m busy being myself. It feels like what work ought to be.
Believe me, I’ve had work before, and I realize how lucky I am.