Sunday, 24 January 2016

How I could afford to become a writer

Reading: Darkness Visible by William Styron
Listening to: "Centuries" by Fall Out Boy
Outside: Street lamp lights float in this gentle evening

Well hey, guys! Happy 2016!

Now that January is in full swing and the Yuletide's food comas have abated, I thought it would be nice to hop back in the saddle and bring to your attention: this.

I write this in response to Andrew Scott's recent post in Brainspotting, a vibrant and vital newsletter for all you writers out there. In his post, How I could afford to become a writer, Scott - author, editor, university professor and dad, gives us his own history on how he became a writer - a path that is certainly different for each and every one of us.

For so many of us, money is a dirty thing. It is a distasteful subject (always an awkward but necessary talking-point during a job interview, which: ugh), but nonetheless something that we need to survive. We will do what we can to make it, and then it takes almost nothing to spend it. We have to pay bills, after all. We need to eat. We need that glass of wine, or that slice of cheesecake, or the latest Fall Out Boy album - those scrumptious little creature comforts in life.

For some of us, we can write because we have money. We have it because we are given it through a parent's gift, or through a tragedy - either way, it lays level in our hands and we can put it to good use, making a writer's way we may not have had without it. Maybe it makes writing somehow easier (though it's never easy) or perhaps it makes it somehow, I don't know...guilt-free. Like closing the door on bill collectors and the Dementors of the world, the bosses and the bursar's office. You shove the check to cover that electricity bill under the door and they go quiet and leave you alone. Jaws snap and draw away. Then you can write. Whew, thank whatever gods may be.

For me, well, it was a completely different story.

For me, it was almost-poverty.

I was, on the outside, a skinny, straight-toothed university student. Tanned and trim, I lived for the library, for fiction and creative writing classes. I studied hard and read a lot.

The truth: By the time I graduated from Ball State University, I had taken to eating out of the trash in order to save money, because I was paying for two-thirds of my education in cash. In all of my undergraduate career I took out no loans. This was my choice. I worked three jobs at one time, one of them at night. I wrote awful short stories during the Night Audit hours at the Econolodge (it's gone now, turned into a used car lot, but back then it wasn't even three-star accommodation) in Anderson, Indiana.  I wrote spine-tingling (horrible) thrillers at three A.M. when everyone else was asleep. I also worked at H. H. Gregg's in Muncie and at Bracken Library on the Ball State campus. Other jobs included: lab assistant in Ball State computer labs, clerk at Frederick's of Hollywood lingerie store at the Castleton Square Mall, hotel housekeeper, assistant at a dental practice, lingerie retail assistant at J C Penney's at both Castleton and Muncie malls, hotel front desk supervisor, and student employee at T. I. S. Bookstore not far from the Ball State campus. All of this in the space of four years. Overlay them together, cut one or two out at a time, the way you create a delicate braid in a bride's hair, and that was my working history - an ornate, painstaking, beautiful design.

I learned how long I could stand on my feet (eighteen hours), and how few hours I could sleep during the day (four) and still be able to function the next day - or at the very least, still be able to string together the lace of words, making dark marks on paper that somehow freed me from the slavery I felt caged inside as I tried to earn a dollar here, a dollar there.

It wasn't until I was 21, one year before I would get my Bachelor's degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, that I wrote my first novel - an embarrassing but exploratory and of course very important discovery of what it takes to write three hundred pages of fiction.  By that time, a day working only eight hours (after a day of class) was an easy day. I graduated with sore feet and a resplendent smile and hundreds of pages of prose stacked under my computer desk (second-hand - I'd picked it up off the side of the road when I saw it winking at me, sign taped to it FREE TO GOOD HOME, because then I couldn't even afford furniture. Up until then I had written at my ancient desktop computer sitting on the floor.)

Ah, the Spartan sparseness. A bit Abraham Lincoln? A bit Stephen King? Yes. And also yes. Lucky? Also, absolutely yes.

Without those back-breaking hours, those impossible days and even worse nights, I wouldn't have learned what I needed to learn, and that was this: I can write through pretty much anything. Anything. I wrote, and I did it because I had to. I just had to. I needed to create story and define character. I needed sharper dialogue. I needed something at stake.

For me, it was hunger. Hunger was writing, and writing was hunger.

I think sometimes, when I was focused on the computer screen, and I imagine how I must have looked in the lobby of the Econolodge in Anderson, Indiana, cordless hotel phone just waiting to ring and jolt me out of my 3 A.M. prose reverie. All of those people sleeping. Hotel guests, responsible moms and dads, and students all. And here I was, typing away, keeping awake. Story kept me tied there, even when every cell in my body cried for sleep. Story - believing it, creating it - got me through.

How do you afford to become a writer? For me, it was creating something from nothing. The alchemy of ideas. You just do it.

Now, almost eleven years after graduating, I have a Master's degree in English Literature from the University of Leeds in England. I live in sunny South Yorkshire, a couple hours' train ride from London. I have a husband, a daughter and a very sturdy footrest composed of manuscripts of books I have written, books that get a little bit sharper every time.

One thing is true, money or not - in your journey to writerhood, you certainly learn to live.

How about you? What is your story?

(And Happy Sunday!)