Monday, September 05, 2011

Being a Writer

Recently I took a look back through the stories I wrote between the ages of 8 and 28. It got me to thinking a bit about why I do what I do. This might or might not be of interest to you, but if you are someone who writes for the sheer pleasure of it but are not yet paid for your pleasure, perhaps my thoughts will be of interest to you.

My late grandmother (that'd be on the Dorsey/Leahy side of the family) told me that when I was five, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I recall having a discussion with my mother at the age of ten to the effect that I wanted to write for NASA, to which she replied, "NASA doesn't hire writers, they hire engineers." It took around 27 years to prove her wrong, but that is in fact what I did and continue to do: I am a paid contractor writing content for NASA.

This was by no means a direct path. I have not yet finished retyping or cataloguing all those old stories, but the tally is well over 100, and there were probably an equal number of stories I started but never finished, either because they bored me or I lacked sufficient skill or knowledge, or I didn't trust myself enough to say the things that needed to be said. In between stories, of course, I was performing my day job and doing writing on the side.

My day jobs have ranged from stocking retail shelves and mopping floors at my local Jewel/Osco to developing presentations and writing speeches for NASA executives. In between those experiences lay things like answering complaint letters for Walt Disney World; writing letters to the editor in support of space exploration; writing hundreds of letters and millions of emails; developing project plans, event plans, and business plans; writing essays and proposals and theses for school; writing love poems and poems about falling out of love; developing marketing campaigns and calendars; herding volunteers and running a full-blown conference. All this time I was learning my craft, if only because I had to use words to do them.

Despite a large vocabulary and lot of difficult books on my shelves, I'm a pretty simple guy. This comes across in my writing more and more as I get older: I feel I have less and less time for bullshit, so I try to get to the heart of a matter using as few words as possible. That has become my style. When I'm asked to write government documents, I refuse to write in bureaucratese unless absolutely necessary. I believe in plain language and direct accountability: "The Project Manager will..." or "The vehicle engine did..." rather than secondhand, passive language like "Mistakes were made (by whom?)" or "The vehicle experienced dynamic disassembly (that'd be "exploded," buddy)."

For better or worse, I've learned to write in the Corporate Voice and get reasonably well paid for doing so. My employers count on me to create documents that achieve a specific purpose and do so in a way that will not offend customers and that will edify or sometimes entertain our readers. That is not entirely a bad thing, nor does corporate writing wound the ability to write fiction, because to write for people in any line of work, you have to understand people: what do they need to know? How do they think? What are their priorities? What words do they prefer to use? How educated are they? What are their hot buttons? It's the literary equivalent of method acting. And if you can do it for real people to earn a buck, odds are pretty good that you can do so with fictional people.

However, my literary life has had a few downsides: doing technical writing for a living can eat up a lot of bandwidth that might have been used for more "literary" pursuits. I like what science fiction writer Ted Chiang had to say about the matter:

"I can't recommend technical writing as a day job for fiction writers, because it's going to be hard to write all day and then come home and write fiction. Nowadays I work as a freelance writer, so I usually do contract technical writing part of the year and then I take time off and do fiction writing the rest of the year. It's too difficult for me to do technical writing at the same time as fiction writing - they draw on the same parts of my brain."

I need to give that contract-writing and time-off thing a try at some point. In any case, it's absolutely true that if you are a paid writer doing a corporate job during the day, it is very difficult to come home and crank out new, creative prose in another world. In any case, there are things I haven't done because I haven't been sufficiently driven or energetic enough to do, like write a complete, original novel. I've got a Star Wars novel in the pile that I've shared with a couple friends and family members, but that's just me playing around in someone else's universe. There will come a time when I will "get serious" and write the Great Bartish Novel or whatever because I need 50,000 words' worth of storytelling to convey one set of ideas. I'm not there yet. I continue to write short fiction, maybe one story every couple years.

But the bottom line here is that if you want to get paid to write, you can and you will. The market still exists, if only because writing clearly and well is becoming a dying art. You might end up writing technical manuals for hardware that bores you to tears, but your efforts to translate Korean (or worse, American Engineer) into Plain English will be appreciated by some unknown user at some future date. You might have to proofread your club's newsletter or take on some other writing task no one else wants to do because they know they can't write well. It's a skill, really, and the more you do of it, in more varieties, the better it will serve you when you absolutely have to write your Great American Novel.

So if you aren't writing and "want to," stop making excuses: get out there and do it!

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