Don't Be a Writer (if You Can Help it)
TL;DR: Don't be a writer (if you can help it!) It's awesome but it sucks, too.
Recently, I had an old friend suggest I write about what it takes to be a writer. As it happened, I'd already set up this blog/newsletter at Substack with the plans to pretty much do that. So, thanks, Matt! I appreciate the kick in the pants!
This is the first in a series, as there are many aspects of being a writer. In fact, there are so many different ways to be a writer. I've written animation, novels, comics, short stories, screenplays, plays, SEO copy and probably some other things that I've forgotten. However, you could be a writer of instruction manuals, recipes, poems, a journalist, a speech writer, a translator for books in other languages (that's a kind of art, all on its own!) and probably some other types of writers I can't think of. But all that said, in my experience as a writer, I have a recommendation for anyone and everyone:
Don't be a writer.
It's hard in many different ways. It can be pretty all-consuming. It's lonely as hell, according to some writers I know. I find it's only lonely for me when I am missing the time I spend with specific people--mainly my wife. Business-wise, you are pretty much guaranteed to be taken advantage of. No one wants to pay anyone what they are really worth, and writers are definitely people who often get underpaid. They also get their ideas ripped off, and credit not given (This last thing happened to me with this and this). On a personal level, writers can end up alienated from family and friends because of various reasons related to the forced isolation required for the act of writing. (Pretty much all of these things have happened to me.)
The worst is when you are told you aren’t getting paid more (or at all) because you are lucky to be writing for them in the first place. The really sad thing is, actual paid writing gigs can feel so rare that you’re willing to accept their explanation. I mean, I felt so lucky to be working on a show like Cow & Chicken and when I had a show I created optioned for about $1500 I was absolutely overjoyed to sell a show at all. I remember, just after getting my first check from Warner Bros for C&C, my then girlfriend saying to me “You look different… taller, maybe?”
I smiled and said “I’m a writer.” Oof—but don’t get me started on how less valued animation writers were back in the 90s. And I wrote 4 or 5 stories and one full script. I never saw a credit. I’m nervous even admitting that because my mentor told me that I was right to be upset, and he was sorry I didn’t get credit, but that if I made a big deal out of it, I’d never work again. Writers are a dime-a-dozen, was his general feeling. He loved writers but the industry didn’t.
What I'm getting at is that you really don't want to be a writer. So, why do I want to be a writer? That's the wrong question. The right question is: Why do I write?
I am compelled to write. I will have a random idea pop into my head and I'll think, "Oooo.... this would make a GREAT story!" and then I can't live my life anymore without thinking "I need to write that! I need to write that! I need to WRITE THAT!!!"
Once I had this idea for a story about a future where rich folks, after letting the Earth get ruined by their greed, build five massive space stations to be their new homes in space. Sort of like the Jetsons on steroids. This became the basis for the story universe in my novel Man From Zero.
This happens to me a lot. I'll have an idea and I can't leave it alone. Sometimes characters will bug me inside my head until I write them. Sometimes a concept will be so cool that I'll sit with it for years, trying to find the right characters to explore it.
What I'm getting at is, that if you are consciously trying to be a writer, do it because your soul is giving you no choice. It's the only reason I punish myself and those around me with my life choices. I feel like it might be possible for me to ignore these compulsions but, if I was at all successful at it, it would make me a very different person. I'd be just the introvert and not the passionate nerd who loves things in life and embraces crazy ideas and believes in hope and the future.
But hey, I'd also have a steady job and much more space in my tiny Manhattan apartment after getting rid of all my nerdy toys and knickknacks.
So, in short, it takes a LOT to be a writer. Then again, creating your own worlds and even universes and then playing in them, is one of the most fun things to do ever. It's a shame we don't respect writers more as a culture. It's hard to break into the "industry," it's hard to stay there, and the cost of giving up a "normal," stable, life to be a writer is a costly one.
Writing fiction is my absolute favorite thing to do but I still fully admit that it sucks.