Novel or Nothing? You Might Be Cheating Yourself Out of an Amazing Career

You Might Be Cheating Yourself Out of an Amazing Career

Writers – and isn’t that pretty much all of us? – tend to inspire stereotypes.

Large, black-framed glasses. Pumpkin spice eeeeeeverything. Mug cozies. (Because obviously, your mug of jasmine tea needs to remain very, very hot if you want a visit from the muse.) Naturally, this is not an exhaustive list of stereotypes, but admit it, at least one of the above sounds pretty familiar.

Now here’s one that pertains to pretty much every writer: the desire to write a book. Maybe a novel, maybe a memoir or a biography of someone we find fascinating. Perhaps a collection of essays or a rollicking humor romp. The format matters less than the fascination: Writers want to be authors, plain and simple.

It’s not just writers, either. According to estimates, 81 percent of Americans want to write a book, or roughly 200 million people. Other estimates put the figure closer to 90 percent. It’s an aspiration almost anyone can relate to and, provided the writer really does have something to say, a good one.

Unfortunately, while those dreams are laudable, they cheat many a soul out of an amazing career.

Do We Have Unrealistic Expectations About Writing?

Let me first say this: It’s not the expectation of publishing a novel that’s the problem. I mean, I have that expectation for myself, absolutely. Career-wise, it’s my life’s goal.

The problem arises, though, when we expect a novel to just spring out of existence while we toil away at a totally unrelated job during the day. For me, it was banking and teaching and waitressing, hating my day job while feverishly pounding keys at night. For 10 years, I made the mistake many writer hopefuls make: failing to work toward a middle ground.

Yet author hopefuls disparage that middle ground. We expect that we can “find time” on the weekends or on a random Tuesday night, and somehow crank out a book worthy of a New York publishing house. We will maintain our day job … until we become an overnight sensation. There is no in-between. There is no other option.

But this is a false choice. When did society convince us that it was “Next Great American Novel or Bust”? I’ve never read that rule anywhere. In fact, the deeper I penetrate into the seemingly esoteric realm of paid writing, the more I learn one very simple not-so-secret secret:

Becoming a well-paid and deliriously happy writer does not require publishing a bestselling novel.

The Missing Link

So how, exactly, did this ridiculous myth get propagated?

Perhaps because the idea of writing a book just feels so much more delicious than slaving away at a journalism desk job, or writing copy for a footwear company, or slowly working your way through a literary agency’s brutal slush pile. Or perhaps we want to write because books allow us to leave a piece of ourselves behind. No matter the reason, we want to write to escape our current state of being.

This is backwards – and I know, because I did it for so many years. In assuming that we must stick with the status quo while we laboriously fill our off-hours with writing, we enslave ourselves not only to the day job we “have to” keep until we get published but also to a writing dream that eventually starts to feel like a dear-god-why-hasn’t-it-happened-yet writing nightmare.

Y’all, it doesn’t have to be this hard.

The missing link is that calmer, better middle ground. The one where you’re neither a novelist nor nothing. That place that most of us inhabit, and will continue to inhabit for quite some time.

And that’s okay.

Give Yourself a Leg Up

The only universal rule of work I’ve ever encountered is that the people who are working toward their purpose are the happy ones. Perhaps they write copy for a living, as I eventually learned to do to fulfill those pesky writing urges. Maybe they run a pizzeria or work with children in underserved schools. Possibly those peeps will write cookbooks and memoirs one day. But probably not today.

The goal we should set in front of ourselves is to be happy today. In setting the expectation that we must publish immediately, we work against that happiness. Really any time we give up on the present to wait for a rosy writing future, that’s a problem.

The trick is to work toward a career you love right now, and let writing be a lovely possibility for tomorrow. Not the only possibility; just one of them. If a writing career calls us, great, we should do that! If not, well that’s fine too. What’s wrong with enjoying another job, and still wanting to write? We’ve been taught it’s one or the other, but it’s not.

Let go of the immediacy of it all. Let the urges exist, wash over you even … but don’t let them control you. By doing so, our writing gets better, less frenetic, more true. This is how beautiful writing careers are born, and how day jobs grow beloved and fulfilling in the meantime. It is, without question, the most peaceful path to walk, so why wouldn’t we choose it?

… Oh, and don’t forget the tea cozies.

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