When I made the decision to make ‘writing’ my vocation, I believe I was sold a bill of goods. I want to return it. Sadly, it is now too late for me, as evidenced by the fact that my first instinct when returning from a well-earned two weeks off was to open my laptop and start tapping away at those idiotic squares on my keyboard. I am doomed. But over the course of the several decades of this ridiculous ‘calling’, I think the scales have fallen from my eyes about the whole damn endeavour. I know the truth, and the truth is that this writing life is nothing like the brochures. Let’s take a look at some of the realities vs the expectations I had going in.
Expectation: The writer’s life.
Ever since I wrote my first short story, I’ve dreamed of a final end goal where I could live the authorial life promised me by just about every single film about an author I’ve ever seen (apart from those Stephen King ones about authors being haunted, murdered, hobbled, or freezing to death in a maze). To whit, one where I wake up each morning and saunter into my oak panelled study to whip off the next bestseller, enjoy a glass of red wine and relax, possibly with a dog at my feet and a polo neck on my slim frame.
Reality: My current writing setup is to write on the kitchen table, in the passenger seat of my car, on my knees in the bedroom, or pretty much anywhere I can, while desperately trying to block out the sounds of real life occurring all around me. In any given writing session, I spend as much time being frustrated by lost trains of thought as I do my own inability to stay off Twitter long enough to do any actual writing. Oh, and I hate both red wine and polo necks. There is no oak panelling to speak of.
Expectation: Writing is about writing.
The job of a writer is to write, right? To craft worlds, weave characters, toy with the emotions of their readers, and generally utilise the alchemy of brainwaves to make magical new realities?
Reality: As an indie author, I reckon less than half my ‘writing’ time is spent actually writing. There’s marketing, cover design, social media, project planning, business admin, watching endless webinars about reader engagement and any other million things that go toward trying to run a small business that happens to sell books. If anyone out there is of the opinion that writing books is easy living, I want to punch them quite hard in the face. Even when it comes to the writing itself, aside from the first draft, there’s very little of writing that actually resembles that magic that sustains us, drives us forward. Editing your manuscript, for example, makes pulling out and re-growing your fingernails and pulling them out again seem like a fun hobby.
Expectation: Writing is fun!
Writing is more than a hobby, it’s a calling, something, in my case at least, that draws me back like someone doing a bad impression of Al Pacino in Godfather III. One would think, then, that it’s a pastime that one actually enjoys doing, right?
Reality: Writing is many things – revelatory, magical, tiring, boring, roughly akin to self-dentistry – but one thing I’ve not really experienced much from it is a sense of joyful fun and abandon. Even when I get into that rare and magical ‘zone’ where the words are flowing from my brain and through my fingertips at an alarming rate, when my characters seemed to be creatures of their own creation, doing things I’d never have dreamed of getting them to do – it’s a gruelling and tedious slog. And yet… and yet… it’s still utterly revelatory, magical… as well as tiring, boring, and roughly akin to self-dentistry.
Expectation: The boozy genius
A particularly toxic one, this. A hoary old trope that seemingly gets reinforced from every angle, I was raised thinking of writers like Hemmingway, Hunter S Thompson, Stephen King, Bukowski, Kerouac. Hell, when I first started writing I was really into Withnail and I and remember a documentary about its writer, Brice Robinson, in which he was soused the whole time he wrote it.
Reality: I don’t doubt that many of these bewildering geniuses wrote most of their work half cut, but honestly, I cannot write drunk. Not even remotely. The other day I thought I’d enjoy a nice beer while trying to hit my daily word count, and halfway through a single can of IPA I realised I was writing utter garbage. Now, you can take this as further irrefutable proof, if proof be needed, that I am not one of those merry geniuses, but I prefer to think that this is just one of those nonsense macho tropes to make us all seem cool when we’re just nerds hunched over our keyboards.
Expectation: The instant success
Another one conditioned into me by those aforementioned movies about writers. After all, who ever made a movie about a writer getting endlessly knocked back and failing to get anywhere? But part of me thought that there was a standard route – write a book, have some character-building knockbacks and then instantly find fame, fortune, and the ability to lead the writer life outlined in the previous four points.
Reality: In 2019, this is absolutely not how it works. The vast majority of traditionally published authors earn less from their work than a minimum wage job, and self-published authors like myself consign themselves to a gruelling treadmill of promotion, entrepreneurial slog, and the potential for the whole thing to collapse like a flan in an oven at any time.
So what are the lessons from all this? It’s a hard slog, being an author, and most of us have to do it on top of all the real-life stuff that other people will insist on you having to do. But is it worth it? I honestly can’t answer that, but I can tell you that I’m in. I’m hooked. There ain’t no escape from this monkey on my back, and the bastard’s holding a typewriter.
So, fellow writers, what am I missing. What writer realities confound the expectations you had going in?
Paul Stephenson is a writer of horror and science fiction novels. Blood on the Motorway: An apocalyptic trilogy of murder and stale sandwiches is out now in ebook and print from Amazon and all other good bookstores. You can get the first book free by joining the mailing list or reading along at Wattpad. Oh, and he’s got a Patreon. Sign up for free books, a free weekly short story, and much more.