What they don't tell you

15 August 2011

When you write for a living as opposed to "just writing", suddenly, everything is seen in terms of cash. How much money could I be making for a short story that just came to me one night, the characters already forming, like the opposite of ghosts in my head, transparent people growing more opaque? Presently, I fetch about Rs 5 a word, on average, more if I'm lucky, and I try to never let it go lower. This is a good rate for a freelance writer in India, given that every second person I meet wants to be a freelancer themselves, and most newspapers offer you Rs 2. You have to make it worth your while, otherwise it shows in your writing. A hurried piece is unsatisfactory, even if you consider yourself a fairly good writer, even if the readers of that paper may have never read your stuff before, you know it's not your finest.

But it's hard to stay fine when it's what you do for cash. I think (and this may not be a great metaphor, but it's the only one I can come up with at the moment that seems to fit) of a prostitute. That's intimate stuff, and it's being put out there for money. Much like a freelance writer. Do you imagine the prostitute always performs well? Or are there hit or miss days for them as well, days when they make love with passion and energy and days when they scrape by with just a well done hand job? I know, writing wise, I have hand job days--my work is swift, it gets you to the end, it's not unsatisfactory. But it's not the orgasm the reader could have had.

Freelance work is most days a whole lotta nothing. There are days I spend watching mindless TV, going back to bed  and reading after the maid has gone for the day and can't judge me, texting friends as early as I can (not before 4, because you don't want to look like you have nothing to do, not after 5, because they'll have already made plans for the evening) to see if they want to meet later that day. Killing time. I may as well be a murderer, like the Mad Hatter said to Alice. There is no genius burning, nothing like I imagine the old days of writers to be, a lot of writing in an attic and then an evening pint with other writer friends. And the funny thing is, if you count all the extra (meaning: non-book related) work I have, and the amount of Twitter/Facebook/blog stuff I do, I'm writing more than I have in my entire life. It's just not "work" writing. Not "career" writing either. It's just... writing.

They don't tell you about the not glamorous days. I met a boy at the IIM I was at recently, and he said to me, shiny eyed, "Tell me about your life! I watch Californication, is your life like that?" I laughed and said that was like asking a surgeon whether their life was like Grey's Anatomy, but even friends, random people I meet say, "Oh, your life looks so exciting!" And I feel the need to wave my cigarette holder about, kiss people on the cheek, weave flowers through my hair, compulsively write in my little Moleskine at parties, be the kind of writer that people who want to be writers try to be. Horn rimmed glasses and all. Throw about a good mango/seduction metaphor. Talk about my perfect writer-y life, in the perfect writer-y flat with the perfect writer-y cat. When in reality, some days, I wake up to uninspiration. Some days, I am longing for the sound of someone else's voice inside my head. Some days I think I'll never be able to write again, that every word that leaves my fingertips sounds hackneyed and trite. Some days, my perfect writer-y cat greets me with a perfect poop in the middle of the living room floor.

They don't tell you how lonely it's going to be. That being a writer means long hours, thankless wages and no distractions. That there's no such thing as "no distractions". Very rare meetings. No colleagues. The fact that you lose all social skills after a while because you no longer know how to talk to people. Irritability that lasts for days. Insomnia. Days when you feel completely and utterly worthless because all you are, all your self worth is tied into how well you can write and you haven't written a sentence in two weeks. Days when you kind of hate that everyone is moving on with their lives on to bigger better things and you're still stuck with a job that will never pay you as much as your MBA friends are getting. Days when the Project Of Your Life that you're working on, your new baby, has to be described to someone who asks "what do you do?" quite innocently at a party and as the words leave your mouth and they look even slightly skeptical, you're suddenly thrown into doubt, "OH MY GOD, WHAT AM I DOING?"

To know that you're doing what you've wanted to do since you were a little girl, so convinced were you that you would some day be a Writer that no one was actually surprised except you when you became one, is the most wonderful feeling. But still. Some days are better than others. Some weeks are better than others. You do what you love and you do what you can.

27 confessing back:

  1. Poignant post! Slightly sad, but insightful.

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  3. Im not entirely sure why, but this post gave me hope today :) to continue doing what I love, even though I often wonder why Im sticking to this erratic rollercoaster ride of a job thats sometimes altogether thankless. I guess its because I love it and its all I can do.

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  4. Well, I am one of those MBA friends, who is a closet writer and would do ANYTHING to be in your shoes: doing what you love to do. even if it means having those bad days, even if it means pimping yourself, even if it means sheer loneliness...

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  5. Just wanted to let you know that I read your book about Layla, and I really loved it. I am a teenage girl, and it really hit home with me, and I think you are an amazing writer.
    Of course some days are bad. I'm sure ANYONE can tell you that when you choose a profession, some days are gonna be bad. But you live for the good days.
    Please don't ever stop writing.

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  6. Well, I am one of those potential MBAs ( not at an IIM, but one neverthless ), and there are occasionally days when I feel very similarly about having my self-respect tied up with my ability to do numbers! And, numbers can literally screw u :P. But I suppose I still get on with it, because its an integral part of who I am, just like writing I suppose is for you , I cannot imagine anything else I'd rather be doing ( don't get me wrong , there are days when I want to do exotic stuff like being a tea taster or a surfing instructor , and of course get paid for it ), but nothing will feel as much ME, as what I'm currently doing.
    Everyone has up days and down days, and the key is to probably keep perspective during the down days , and write beautiful stuff on the up days - I do love your blog, even though I'm new to it, and I haven't gone through your book yet, your blog cheers me up on my down days !

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  7. Even those "MBA friends" suffer from bad patches, when work seems monotonous, when the promotion you want isn't coming, your colleagues don't talk to you, when clients don't seem happy no matter what you do, and your salary never seems high enough ...

    This one time I was supposed to do a photo shoot for the corporate website. My plan was to look like the Perfect Businesswoman (confident, competent, beautiful?), but, somehow, on the day of the shoot, I woke up late and forgot about the whole thing. My shirt wasn't ironed, I didn't have any make-up on, my face was all swollen and tired, and my hair was a mess. The marketing guy walked up to my desk and said, "you have ten minutes if you want to ..." -- now I thought he was going to say "do your make-up" -- but he looked me up and down and said, "smoke a cigarette or something." :o)

    Sometimes your ego and how you feel about yourself seems to go up and down depending on the mood swings of your bosses. Sometimes you spend days in the office starring at the ceiling wondering why you're wasting your life there, and that maybe you should be doing something you love instead.

    So thanks for sharing.

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  8. Very nice. Shared the link with my writing group.

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  9. this is the frankest, accuratest, most truthful piece I've ever seen on writing. eM, its exactly how I feel/think/wonder as a writer. Those off days, those days with no work...I go through it all too. Glad to know I'm not lonely in my uncertain career. Sigh. But, unlike you, I play MindJolt games on Facebook, even when I have to think :)

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  10. I am from Media and I know this profession can be often thankless. But then this is the only thing I love and the only thing I can do

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  11. keep the faith flag flying, nothing is set in stone.

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  13. No one was more candid about work than old Samuel Langhorne. Perhaps he would have, if he were alive, left a comment citing a reference to Tom Sawyer.

    Besides, Clemens openly said that the reason why he was so successful was because people like to read trash.

    After all, we humans attach too much importance to ourselves, and we forget that we are also animals who just need to eat, survive and reproduce.

    Intellectual bullshit is just a means to get food and pussy.

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  14. Doing what you love to do is a truly wonderful thing. While reading thru the post I was wondering , as I sometimes do, as to what value my life has. The corporate life, a pay that helps me live comfortably well, colleagues but a void within coz I know this is not what I wanted to do. Fake smiles, performance appraisals with frens turning foes over ratings, dumb technology, I ve lost my trust for all being here. The first few years are great.. then u feel old and left out and u cannot leave it either because u do not have any other means to live.

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  15. Thank you for being honest. People who show the world the unglamorous bits of their job are doing it a favor. And being brave.
    Good luck, eM. May the words come easier and I hope happiness follows.

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  16. Perfectly said. You gotta do what you have to do.

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  17. The human psychology is so ambiguous that it always finds reasons and voids in its sense of belief to torture the soul of its own benefactor. There are 2 types of regrets in life. The first one is to not get what you want. The second one, very often, is to get it. Choose your own void, my writer friend. Let is pain you as much as it can. At least, you will feel alive.
    Be Strong, S.

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  18. bravo!
    I salute your honesty; would've diluted the angst somewhat. :)

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  19. You are forgetting that (fictional) 'icon' for freelancers all over the world...Carrie Bradshaw...

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  20. I feel you. The writing was so bad today I was ready to bury my head in quicksand.

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  21. Hiii
    I salute your honesty

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  22. i feel so relieved to hear this.
    I'm not a professional writer (yet) but that is what I aspire to be and when I feel this way, I feel like maybe I'm not cut out for this field.

    I'm glad you write. Cos you're entertaining, and you write articulate feelings extremely well. :)
    You are a writer by profession, but you are so much more too. So don't be

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  23. Bright side, Em is:

    - Doing what you love
    - For yourself (maybe sometimes for others but it's not so bad)
    - Being answerable to yourself and your readers
    - Being able to express yourself freely, boldly whenever you like
    - Having your own schedule- doing what you like, when you like

    Would you be able to do this in a glam corporate job? The trade-off is money of course, which will come in due time, so hang in there girl!

    P.S. I've been reading your blog for a coupla years but never felt the need to post until today :)

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  24. Thank you, I needed to read that. Misery loves company. Your last sentence clinched it. Really, really needed to hear it. Thank you again, M & I hope you're doing well.

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  25. delurking after eons but i do read your blog frequently. loved this post-honest and soul bearing.
    there are very few people who are doing what they love to do. you are blessed.

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  26. Unfortunately, writing is like the "tournament of life". THe top 1% make 95% of the money.Remaining 95% keep struggling with odd assignments here and there for the rest of their lives. I am a software engineer who likes writing and I am not able to get into writing full time because I know that I am not as good as the best in the industry.

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  27. read through this with tears in my eyes. this has been my every day for two years now.

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