I started writing because in December I was displaced from my office and much of my kitchen by storm damage. Repairs were slow to take place (how slow? They're still not finished), and because I work from home I lost a significant amount of income, none of which was eased by my miserable shit of a landlord. With nowhere to go and less to do than usual, I just started plugging in a thousand or so words a day on what I thought might be a short story. When it seemed to be growing beyond those parameters I simply followed along. And when it looked like it might be a novel, albeit a slight one, I elected to stay the course, in part to confirm a secret suspicion I've always harbored.
Several months ago I went to an event and fell into conversation with someone about writing that took an all too familiar turn when I said I made my living reviewing books. This particular woman leaned in and asked, "But what do you REALLY write?" I know she wasn't asking about pornography or political speeches; when people ask what I do and I answer honestly that I'm a writer, there's an assumption that I mean a novelist, poet, playwright--an artist, in other words. The idea that I might be happy getting paid to do what I love most somehow strikes people as unsavory. Better I should review books but think of it as waiting tables while waiting for my real life to begin. I don't think that at all; besides, waiters make a lot more money than I do.
I started writing in elementary school because we had a fantastic visiting poet through the CPITS (California Poets in the Schools) program named Pam Raphael. She liked my work and submitted it around and was generally supportive in an environment where my only other function was getting hit in the face with those pink four-square balls. So for sure I've got some poetry down in my roots. But when I told people growing up that I wanted to be a writer, I was being incredibly truthful and accurate. I didn't want to be a poet or novelist or playwright. I simply wanted to write.
So I did, while working crummy retail jobs, or in between jobs, or whenever. And sometimes I tried to get published and just as often I didn't. For a while before my dad and I became homeless I was writing for half a dozen small newspapers and putting out a newsletter for the health food store I used to work at. That was maybe the most I've ever enjoyed my working life.
Post-homelessness I took a bunch of crappy jobs again, but when two of them laid me off at once, I decided to try again in the freelance world. It's much worse than when I was writing before; many places pay a flat fee of $20 or $30 for assignments that can in no way be outsourced to someone not fluent in English. When I got paid by the word, even if it was just 3 cents I felt encouraged to embellish, expand, expound at length in order to, as the kids say, make that paper. So I'm constantly pressed to find more work now, and still find myself relying on savings to make ends meet.
Underneath that busy mentality, I found myself questioning whether there really was some other thing I was supposed to be doing. Am I an artist? Am I spinning my wheels and denying the world something that should be shared? And, what was really eating at me, was I not really a writer? Everyone makes such a fuss over novels and authors. Maybe there was something to the process that just had to be experienced firsthand.
After finishing the first draft of my novel and just beginning to revise and edit a little, I can confidently say there's one essential difference between it and any other work I've done: It took longer. Otherwise? Writing is writing. The nice thing about working with characters and a situation over time was that many times when I sat down with an idea of the scene to come, it turned out much differently than I'd expected. That sense of being surprised by the work was a pleasure. I get the same zing any time I sit down to write a review and have to check an assumption I've had about the book, or if I'm just ranting in my notebook and come back to it later and find a poem almost fully formed on the page as if it had been left there by the Easter Bunny. Writing a novel was the same, just super-sized.
I will continue to revise and retool the novel as a break from my other work, and because I like all the imaginary friends it gave me at a time when I needed the company. But the real gift was the realization that I'm exactly where I want to be, doing work I enjoy and am good at, not something on the way to something else, unless that something is getting paid like a waiter.