I had a conversation with my spouse the other day about how ‘‘boring’’ my life had become the last few years, ever since I got a real professional job and stopped moving house all the time. My life had become a long marathon in an exhausting desert, and could no longer be carved up into amusing scenes and anecdotes.
That meant that every interview I did, and every article I put together, I always ended up talking about things I’d done in my 20s. Sure: I did a lot of things in my 20s. I traveled around the world – from Alaska to South Africa – got a couple of academic degrees, nearly died from an immune disorder, churned through a number of pity-party relationships, and moved almost a dozen times. I had all sorts of great stories about breaking into cars, traveling across the Arctic Circle, boozing it up in Durban, and traveling across Southern Spain eating various meats drenched in gravy.
But what did I really have to talk about anymore, in my 30s? What the hell had I done with my 30s? Was I doing anything at all with my life worth talking about?
As I fiddled with my biography recently, trying to update the About page on my website, I realized what I’d been doing all this time:
I’d been building a career… and building a career isn’t nearly as exciting as traveling around the world or giving said world a play-by-play on theatric breakups.
Though I will often talk about the nuts and bolts of writing or publishing here and elsewhere, I’ve been very careful not to talk much about my career as a marketing and advertising writer, and there are some aspects of the publishing business I don’t talk about either. In the early days of the Internet, I would wax on about client parties and road trips with my boss, but the days when nobody Googled you are long over. A big part of what I do every day is of interest to very few. Though I find e-mail subject lines, analytics, direct mail response rates, and social media strategies very interesting, there isn’t as much crossover between marketing nerds and writing nerds as you might think.
So I return to the wild days. The heady days. The days when I my biggest concern was how I was going to move all my books across continents and afford another bag of rice.
It’s not, of course, just a day job I’ve built during the last four or five years. It’s also a novel writing career, and I can’t talk too much about the intricacies of that, either – chats about agents and contract negotiations and career moves are all conversations I have with folks in closed spaces, whether that’s in e-mail or at a bar. As much as I’d like to be public about everything I do, the reality is that if you want to be a good business person, you need to pick and choose what you share publicly. It’s much easier and safer to rely on stories ten years old than to relate what was revealed at the office when a coworker sent out a ‘‘why I walked off the job today’’ rant (it was a good one!).
So here are these two big accomplishments in my life – and the logistics of achieving and continuing to do better at those – that I’m not talking about. Paired with the fact that I’m not taking as many trips anymore because I’m paying off the student loans that allowed me to do all that traveling and have all those experiences – well, my life looks and feels and sounds really boring to me.
And boring, to me, sounds a lot like failure.
I think this is something a lot of folks go through when they hit the picket-fence-house-two-kids (or dogs, in my case) stage of their lives. It’s like, ‘‘OK! I won that round! I’m less poor and have a mortgage and wow my life is boring trying to pay all these medical bills, what the heck are we supposed to do now?’’
I have never worked longer, or harder, than I have worked these last five years. And all that work isn’t getting talked about. I have a day job; I’m writing three books this year; I’m writing stories for Patreon backers, columns like this one, stories for anthologies, and more. That doesn’t count any of the fiction-career-related things like guest blog posts, articles, responding to email, reviewing and signing contracts, and all that jazz. If you’re looking at the story of my life based on what I share publicly, it’s like I went straight from roaring 20’s to career novelist with nothing in between.
This silence about the work, and how a career is built today, does trouble me sometimes. We’re all in fear for our day jobs and speak as little about them as possible online. We’re also all at least a little careful in what we say about the novel writing world, too. It’s a small industry, and you need to be strategic in your decisions about which bridges to burn and which to maintain.
That leaves us with this: we become part of perpetuating the ‘‘happily ever after’’ Disney movie problem. The story of who we are and how we got here stops once we become married (in the case of the movies) or career-minded adults (as we age out of having the free time to be ‘‘content creators’’). We find that we have to be smarter in how we comport ourselves, and we have less time in which to romp around on Reddit or comment on every single social media post. Yes, of course, there are exceptions, but I’ve certainly found that the busier I get, the less time I have for ruminating on my life choices, let alone the choices of others.
This break in the narrative of our lives can give a false impression of what it takes to not only build, but to sustain a career in publishing. New writers are still coming into the industry thinking that all you have to do is sell a short story, or a novel, and you’re set for life. People get very confused when I say that just because I sold a few books doesn’t mean I’ll sell any more. The market is fickle. The industry is strange. Staying here once you’ve gotten over the hurdle of the first novel is much more difficult than we all pretend back here in the stands, carefully managing our public face as if everything is fine, while the rejections roll in and we write proposal after proposal in the hopes that something sticks.
There is no happily ever after in life, or in the career you’re building. There’s no gold medal. No end to the race. There is just the endless marathon through a desert teaming with snakes and jagged rocks and riddled with the bones of exhausted colleagues who have fallen along the way.
Oh, all right – I admit that sometimes there are oases. There’s cool, clear water. There’s the helping hand of an agent, or a publisher, or another writer. There’s a straight-to-development movie deal. There’s a passionate fan base that shows up at every book launch. But mostly there is the running, there is the desert. This desert marathon makes up the vast majority of our lives, yet its beginning marks the end of our most beloved and popular stories… even the ones we tell about ourselves.
And it’s time we started telling the whole story – snakes, bones, and all.