"Just because you work hard one day doesn't mean that everything is going to happen the next.
It doesn't work that way. It's a process of being excellent over time."
-- Jill Sterkel, U of Texas women's swimming coach
In a culture where ease, speed, celebrity and convenience are our highest public values, it's pretty
tempting to give up if success/fame/financial rewards/power do not come quickly. For some fresh college
graduates, a starting salary of $65,000 or more is not unusual --- in journalism or publishing, try $20,000,
at best, maybe $30,000. If you're working as an independent writer of non-fiction, fiction or poetry, it might
take years for your work, or your ideas, to become lucrative.
Some, at the very start, make quick sales to major markets. But, as every athlete or musician knows, that
first home run or Grammy Award-winning single aren't often easily duplicated. Many dedicated professionals
slide into valleys of disappointment, frustration, rejection and despair. However much one wishes otherwise,
a career in this field can resemble a rollercoaster ride, offering exhilarating climbs to dizzying peaks -
and fantastic views you glimpse for a few tantalizing moments - then a sickening plunge.
I've made my living writing since my freshman year at college, and offer some suggestions, (for any stage of
your writing career,) to help you enjoy the ride:
Find a mentor: No matter your age or experience level, there are times you'll need advice,
insights, encouragement, a crucial phone number or simply a sense of perspective. Writing, certainly outside
of a workplace, can be extremely lonely and isolating. It sometimes feels the problem you face is self-created,
insoluble and overwhelming. Not true! If you treat others' advice respectfully, (and give back whatever you
can to those who seek your mentoring), you'll find what you need. Check out professional writers' bulletin
boards such as freelancesuccess.com or mediabistro.com. Attend the annual ASJA meeting in New York City,
(held in April), to find current insider information.
Find a sport or physical discipline you love: When the going gets tough, I head for the gym
and take an hour or more to work it out. I practise my free throw, cycle, lift weights, do some stretching.
In the summer, I play softball twice a week; in the winter, squash up to three times a week. My sports
activities replenish my spirit in many ways: instant results (yessss!), skill building, social interaction,
light-hearted competition, fresh air and sunshine. Not to mention all those endorphins!
Volunteer: There is nothing like a little reality check to send you back to your computer or
notebook chastened and grateful for your relative good fortune. When you just can't seem to find a buyer in
the marketplace of ideas, someone, somewhere, still desperately needs your good cheer, physical labor, a few
hours of your time and goodwill.
Join a spiritual or religious community: Writing for a living can feel like torture sometimes:
words and phrases elude you, editors won't return your calls, your best friend just won a grant or prize and
you're, still, always, waiting for checks that never come in time. Showing up regularly at a tsanga, church,
synagogue or meeting can help you remember many essentials: the value of prayer, the nurturing of community,
the acceptance of your essential humanity, the wisdom and insights of your spiritual leader and fellow believers.
When you pray for others facing illness, surgery or death, your professional frustrations pale. When others
know your path, they cheer and commiserate with you.
Talk frequently to established writers: As I began working on my first book, I had lunch with
a fellow writer whose first book was widely and well reviewed, and who was well into her second. "Panic attacks?
I get them too," she reassured me. Whew! It's easy to watch others writers' progress and assume that it's smooth
and simple for them. It's not! We all hit the same walls: stories get killed, editors disappear when you most
need them, negotiations over fees and contracts are always challenging, (and necessary.) Find wise colleagues
you like and trust and stay in close contact with them.
Take a break: Sometimes it is just not going to happen. At least not this week. Your fabulous
idea can't find a home. Your lede stinks. Your nut graf stinks. Your kicker stinks. Your story just got killed.
The check is late, again. Get out! Go for a long walk. Take a break and head somewhere utterly unrelated to work,
far away if you can swing it. You can do it cheaply: stay at the Y or a youth hostel. Jump a courier flight
(Mexico City, $150 round-trip?) and savor another culture. Simply shutting down the production line (aka your
brain) for a while is a great way to refresh and recharge. Think you "can't afford it"? Maybe you can't afford
Do something (simple and cheap!) every day that makes you smile: For me, it's watching the sun
set over the river, or buying a bunch of white tulips or making soup or talking to my best friend or shooting
hoops. Whatever it is that makes you really happy, (for one friend, it's watching Star Trek Voyager, for another
playing the piano, for another meditating), try to do it every day. If you rely on your writing success alone
to make you happy, it can be a long, toe-tapping wait. Chase joy!