by Scott Rhoades
Today I want to write about a topic I know better than any other, one that brings me endless hours of fascination and enjoyment.
But stick with me. There's a point to this self-reflection.
This month (if I remember correctly, this coming week, to be exact) marks my 24th anniversary as a professional writer, one who makes all of his living from the written word. It's not the kind of writing that I dreamed of as a youngster, perhaps, but it's been a good gig and I'm happy to have it.
When I was hired that September day by Atari as an editor with additional writing responsibilities, it was with mixed feelings. I wanted a job where I used my writing skills, but, being in my twenties, I felt like corporate writing was kind of a sell-out, and I only planned to do it long enough to get my "real" writing career off the ground. I was, of course, going to be a famous-but-somewhat-reclusive novelist. Never mind that I had never written a novel, and didn't really know how. How was I to know it would be almost fifteen years before I made my first serious attempt at writing one, my first try that amounted to more than a few notes and ten pages or so of actual writing? I was writing poems at the time, and an occasional short story, so how hard would it be to turn that into a career as a novelist? Publishers would jump at the chance to help me live my dream.
Of course, it doesn't work that way. For one thing, to become a novelist (a famous but somewhat reclusive one, remember, with an emphasis on keeping my privacy intact), one must write novels. One must also be willing to sacrifice other priorities, and these were my starting-a-family years.
So, this short-term sell-out job turned into a career, and nothing has been better for my writing. Atari gave me an opportunity to be creative, especially when writing story lines in game manuals, or when designing and writing the stories for comic book posters that came with some of the games. More importantly, it taught me how to treat my writing like a professional, to work toward deadlines, and to work with people who wanted to change my precious words.
It was after I left Atari, by then a sinking ship, two years later, that I took my first writing contract, doing freelance technical writing on the side while working a day job. I wrote for other companies and edited for a book publisher, all as a contractor. I had to manage my freelance work along with my "real" job, learning how to manage my time, and how to keep plugging along even when I didn't feel like it after a long day of writing at work.
This was a busy time for me, with all that work. Unexpectedly, it was also a very productive time for my creative writing. I don't know how I found the time, but somehow I wrote several short stories that were actually pretty good, and poetry besides, all while getting up at 4:30 in the morning to work on my freelance stuff, then working all day at my day job, and coming home at night to a wife and two, then three, children. Still no novels, but I felt like a real writer.
That was still a long time ago. As the years passed, I started earning enough to rely less on freelance work. Around my fortieth birthday, I finally got serious about a novel. The skills I had picked up over the years were a big help. On the other hand, I must admit, it is not always easy to write in my free time when I spend all of my work time writing. Several more hours in front of a computer is not always an attractive prospect. But I suppose that's the life of an adult. Coming home from work often means doing more work of one kind or another.
Here's the thing. I no longer viewed my career as a sell-out. I had a writing job, a good one that used many of my skills (although it wasn't particularly creative in the way I had hoped my career to be). My buddies from school who had planned to be writers all had other jobs that had little or nothing to do with writing. I was a writer. I felt like one. My family was supported by writing. I could afford to buy a home. I finally realized how fortunate I was.
I said there was a point to this, and I suppose it's about time I got to it.
Just about everyone who participates in this blog, either as a writer or a reader, does so out of some hope to become a writer, and probably because we are working toward that goal. Usually, being a writer means only one thing to us, to write stories or books. To become famous, or at least to be known. That's a noble goal, and I'm still pursuing that dream myself. But there are many ways to be a writer. Companies need people who can write instructions, training material, marketing copy, Web site copy, and many other kinds of writing. You'd be surprised how few good writers there are in the corporate world, and how many positions require good writing skills. Magazines and newspapers might be struggling now, but they are still pumping millions of words each month into our cultural sphere. Educational publishers need people who can write. True, we live in an area where there are relatively fewer companies and fewer opportunities than in major urban centers, but many companies are becoming more open to remote workers, if the skills are a good match. To be real about it, these days there aren't exactly thousands of doors that open automatically just because a person can write, but writing is still a valuable skill and the opportunities are there if you're willing to do the work to get there.
Really, the opportunities are nearly endless. If you want to be a professional writer, there are many ways to do it beyond that novel or picture book you want to write, and most of them pay a lot better. By all means, keep the dream of being a creative author and work toward it, but don't be afraid to "lower yourself" to take on a writing job. In addition to paying your bills, you'll learn valuable skills that will help you take a professional attitude toward your "real" writing.
So, take it from me. If you want to be a professional writer (or if you have a young person in your family who wants to write), and you have the skills and the willingness to work at it day after day, you can probably find a way to do it. You just have to adjust your dreams a bit, and look at different things that "professional writer" can mean. Of course, there's nothing wrong with concentrating solely on creative writing if you can afford it, and if you are one of the lucky few that manages to live the dream, you'll be the envy of a huge percentage of corporate writers who are spending our days pumping out words for other people. But there are many ways to be a professional writer, and one of them might just be a surprisingly good fit.
And, then, if you are a very lucky person, as I am, you can sit in your chair 24 years later and write about how fortunate you are to have found a way to make a living from your writing.