How to be a Full-time Writer

I was fortunate enough to work with Arthur Miller in the early 1990s off-Broadway. I was the wardrobe girl, but he always treated me like an integral part of the company. I was an integral part of the company, but you’d be amazed at how few of the people in a production’s “creative team” actually have a clue about how anything gets done backstage.

Anyway, I was thrilled to work with Miller, who was one of the reasons I committed to a life of the theatre in the first place. I was thrilled that he always took the time to seek me out when he came to the theatre once the play was running and talk about just about any topic under the sun.

One day, I was off doing a cue, and when I got back to my wardrobe room, I discovered him reading. One of my short stories. Which I’d left IN my bag, which meant he was rooting around in my bag, something I wasn’t happy with. What did make me happy, however, was his praise of the story (which turned out to be one of the first pieces of mine ever published in a lit magazine and paid).

And he told me that I needed to quit the theatre and write full-time, because I would never be a full-time writer until I relied upon it to pay the bills.

I wasn’t ready to leave the theatre at that point in time. I loved it too much. I still love it, but I’m ready to leave.

And, looking back, I know he was right. If I’d had to count on paying the bills with my writing from an early age, I would be much farther along in my writing career.

The conversation continued, in detail, about the need to delineate UNINTERRUPTED writing time, and space away from family and daily concerns in order to be able to fully inhabit the world of your work. Miller insisted that even if a writer claims to be able to work in a room with distractions – people talking, the television on – the quality of writing will never be as high as it could be if they had the courage to listen to their own souls in silence.

Interestingly enough, around the same time, David Mamet said the same thing in a seminar where he was kind enough to speak for a foundation for which I worked part-time. I’m paraphrasing, but basically, he said that, when he was starting out if, in their small theatre company, they didn’t write well enough to put butts in the seats, they didn’t eat.

Janet Evanovich, one of our most successful current writers, has her life structured so that she has plenty of quiet time to work. In her book, How I Write, she talks in detail about the need for a space outside of the fray, and how wonderful her family is about turning the writing into the family business and supporting that. It’s one of the reasons she’s succeeded, and can do what she does.

Do I regret a career in the theatre? Working on and off Broadway, doing shows all over the world? Of course not. Tens of thousands of people would kill for it. However, I also acknowledge that the theatre was my first career, and now I’m moving into my second career. I’m too old and too tired to run two full-time careers successfully. And, frankly, I’m too old for the intensive theatre schedule of barely one day off per week, working nights, weekends, and holidays. I want something more balanced, and I think, even drawing strong boundaries for the writing, I can achieve it with the writing.

But Miller – and Mamet – were right. I’ll never make a living at it, be a full-time writer – until I rely on it to pay the bills.

Published in: on January 24, 2007 at 12:35 pm  Comments (15)  

15 Comments

  1. Steven King Says the same thing in his book On Writing. He says that you can’t force your muse to illicit wonderful stories all of the time, but you can let her know that everyday, at such and such time, you will be there for her.

  2. What an amazing piece of advice! It rings so true but it feels so scary at the same time.

    That would have been such a incredible experience with Arthur Miller (although I would have been perturbed by him going through my things too).

    As far as quitting the theatre long ago to follow the writing path, I can’t help but feel that would have hindered things. You’ve had so many experiences you would never have had if you’d not stayed.

  3. Good advice! And certainly true of ANYTHING you strive to achieve… if you must rely on it you will work harder at it!

  4. A bellringer post, Devon. What Miller and Mamet said are so true! And it’s good to know that I’m right about what I need to write–time and contemplation. Thank you, d:)

  5. Great post! And did you have some cool job experiences or what?

    I’m still not able to rely on writing to pay the bills, but I do have another source of income (our business) so I’m not pushing myself hard enought to make it happen. I defend myself by saying very few writers are able to pull it off with young kids (I have a 6 year old and a one year old) and then I think of JK Rowling. Sigh.

    Still, it’s the dream … more power to all of us in achieving it!

  6. Do what is best for you. Good luck.

  7. Well you certainly are on your way! If anyone can succeed at this business, it’s you!
    🙂

  8. So ya gonna do it? Ya gonna take the jump? (You alluded but didn’t confirm…)While it’s scary, there is something empowering about that leap of faith that affirms a belief in Self. I believe it opens up a whole new world of opportunity BECAUSE of it. Not to get all new agey on your ass, but you know what i mean.

    Sometimes i could kick myself for not leaping sooner because it was the best damn thing i ever did. I would never have the financial security or thrill of being able to create EVERY day if i hadn’t jumped. No matter what i think in hindsight, i don’t believe i could really have jumped any sooner than i did. I did it at exactly the point where i believed enough in myself to make the risk worth while. And it’s those things that we love most and have the most passion for that should be filling our lives. So go forth Dev and kick some literary ass – i’ll be over in my tiny creative corner cheering you on!

  9. Great post. When the time is right, you have to go for it. Are you going for it? Are you taking that leap? Whatever you do..you will be a success.

  10. Does this mean the final leap is imminent? If it is, you know I’m right behind you! Good luck!!

  11. I’ve often kicked myself for not starting art full-time sooner. Instead I started hubby off in his business and kids off to their school/life and kept watching the bank account. 5 years ago I jumped. The bank account is considerably smaller and the work is finally paying for itself. And I wonder: if I’d started sooner would the work be the same? Probably not. Your work is the accumulation of who you are and what you’ve experienced. Thus, “now” is always the perfect time. Good luck! (and having who you are firmly in place works really well when someone wants you to keep making the same thing while your Muse is proding “Here! Here!”)

  12. Awesome post, Devon! I guess technically, I AM a fulltime writer since I’m a copywriter at the day job. But I eventually want to move to fulltime novelist and leave the day job behind.

    Great advice. 🙂

  13. Whoa – sounds scary. But good luck. If the time’s right … go for it.

  14. I love to hear your stories about Miller.

    And, of course, this is great advice!

    kk

  15. Devon,
    It is difficult to write in the margins of your life. However, I cannot at this point leave my day job.

    It’s the damned health care issue. I have much better benefits than my husband has available from his employer.

    I did however cut back on the number of days that I work so that I can have stretches off at a time. That helps me focus on my writing more than saying “okay, start writing NOW!” after dinner and before bedtime.

    Having more time to devote to my craft has helped me immeasurably.

    I wish you well on this new phase in your life and great success as well.

    Linda

    P.S. Thanks for adding a link to my blog. I returned the favor.


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