Thanksgiving is upon us, and those of us who make our career as writers have a lot to be thankful for.
We don’t always remember this, of course. We complain about poor sales, inadequate support from our publishers, fickle buying trends, small paychecks, slow delivery of monies owed. We fret that our books have been stuck spine-out at the back of the store, and that new copies aren’t ordered fast enough (if at all) when the first batch sells out (if it does). We worry about the escalating competition from other leisure-time pursuits that seem so much jazzier than reading – videogames, movie rentals, cable and satellite TV, music downloads, Web surfing, even blogs like this one.
In the face of all this and more, it’s easy to be negative. But for writers fortunate enough to earn a living at their craft, there are compensations.
Some are obvious. We work at home. We aren’t slaves to an alarm clock, a car pool, or a cubicle. We don’t serve a daily prison sentence from nine to five – or more likely, these days, eight to six. If it’s a beautiful day, we can goof off and go for a walk, and no boss from hell will be there to rough up our psyches when we get back. We don’t live in the Dilbert universe. We don’t even get all the Dilbert jokes.
I realize not everybody regards the workaday world with such horror. But writers do. We’re like criminals in this respect; in fact, I think this is one reason why writers often gravitate toward criminal characters. We don’t want to be penned up in a conventional societal role. Or, to opt for a more wholesome comparison, we’re like little kids praying for one more day of summer before we have to return to the monotony of classrooms and schedules and tests. For us, writing for a living is the dream of childhood – endless summer.
Though we may miss out on some of the camaraderie of office life, we have social and professional support systems to keep us sane: caring editors, dedicated agents, loyal readers. Encouragement from other writers. Help from our expert sources. Writing doesn’t have to be a solitary life, unless that’s how we like it.
And we get to be creative. Whether we write fiction or nonfiction, we need to tell a story that will engage and perhaps enlighten our fellow humans. We are required to learn new things. Over the years I’ve learned, at least in theory, how to hot-wire a car, defeat a burglar alarm system, implement electronic surveillance, evade a tail, steal a chemical weapon, investigate a crime scene, and preserve human tissue under plastic (don’t ask).
There’s also a less obvious compensation. Writing books makes us part of a vast ongoing stream of shared imagination and shared knowledge, a kind of collective consciousness that binds past, present, and future, while bridging gulfs between cultures and worlds. I’ve had books published in Eastern Europe, Japan, even (amazingly) Iran. I’ve received emails from a bank clerk in Holland who’s into death metal music, a woman in Pakistan who invited me on a tour of Islamabad (a fun city, she assured me), and a British expatriate living in Spain who appeared on the British equivalent of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? He is also a chess grandmaster, and he keeps detailed, daily records of every coincidence in his life.
Our books don’t have to go abroad to put our thoughts in contact with cultures different from our own. I know a reader who raises livestock on a Missouri farm, another who breeds horses in Texas, and another who now lives on a coffee plantation in Hawaii after retiring from the foreign service, where she saw duty in Kabul and Baghdad, rode camels on sightseeing expeditions, and bartered for handmade cloths at street corner bazaars.
There’s a New Age truism that all minds are ultimately connected and separation is illusory. If there’s any truth in this, then the crosspollination of ideas and experiences through the written word is perhaps our most important way of combating and overcoming the illusion of separateness. All writers should feel privileged to participate in such an undertaking, no matter how modest our individual contribution may be.