Writing Advice #38: Get A Life

As promised, this week I’m going to talk about what to do while waiting for the writing gods to smile upon you and bestow upon you the Divine Keyboard of Publication.

I received the following e-mail:

Hi Barry! First off, I love your books! They are AMAZING! Anyway, that’s not why I’m writing this. I have a question. I’m a junior in high school, and I have to start figuring out what I want to do with my life. The thing is: I have no idea. For as long as I can remember, I’ll I’ve ever wanted to do was write. I want to write books and be published one day, but that might not definately happen. I want to be able to have some type of job when I get out of school, so I don’t have to wander the streets homeless and steal food from unsespecting pedestrians or something. So what can I do for a job? I think I want to go to college for English (I’m also interesting in environmental biology and history, but I don’t think enough to want to get a degree in them), but then what? And I’m not sure I want to be a teacher, either. So, I guess my point is… do you have any idea what I might be able to do for a job (again, so I don’t starve)? Thanks a lot!

To begin with: People! It’s totally not necessary to lead off your questions with telling me how amazing my books are. Don’t get me wrong — my poor, shriveled sense of self-esteem perks up every time it happens, but there’s no need to butter up Unca Barry before going ahead with your question. I’m here to help.

That said: Thanks! 😉

This question strikes right at one of the core elements of the writing life: Namely, that not everyone who wants to be a successful, published author will achieve that dream. Some people will publish a book or two and never another. Some people will publish consistently, but not earn enough money to live off of. And some people, of course, will never, ever publish a book. Possibly some of you reading this very BLog post.

This is not easy to hear, but it is true. It sucks. Don’t complain to me, though — I just work here. I didn’t make up the rules.

So my advice to people who want to be published authors (and especially to teens, such as this week’s special guest) is very simple: Find something OTHER than writing that you enjoy. And yes, I realize that you will never, ever find something in life you enjoy AS MUCH as writing, but there’s gotta be something that’s sorta, kinda close. Since a career as a paying author is neither promised nor guaranteed in this life, you need to be able to — as you say — avoid wandering the streets and stealing food from pedestrians, both of which are not nearly as romantic or as enticing as they sound.

But you also don’t want to merely subsist, barely living as you wait for your moment in the authorial sun. That’s not living. Stephen King wrote that life is not a support system for art — art is a support system for life. In other words, the purpose of our lives is not to create art, but rather creating art makes life better. See the difference?

Finding something else to do does not mean that you should give up on your dream and settle for second best. It means that you should fight and struggle every single day for your writing dream, while also living a fuifilling life.

Is that tough? Sure. It’s the equivalent of living two lives, working two jobs, and I did it for years before I broke in.

But look: There is nothing in the world — NOTHING — sadder than some wannabe writer living a life of boredom and privation, waiting for the day when the writing gods will come down from Authorial Olympus. That is just a waste of life, man.

You need to find something that you enjoy, something that fires your imagination, something that will make you happy even if you never, ever achieve your dream of being a writer.

I made a mistake, in some ways — before I was published I worked as a staff writer and editor, writing ad copy and the like for a national distributor. I thought that being paid for writing would be great and that it would keep my writing muscles nice and limber for long stretches of MY writing. The problem, though, is that I was spending eight hours (and sometimes more) a day in front of a computer, writing. When I got home from work, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was sit in front of another computer and keep writing!

Still, I say “in some ways” because I did learn a lot about publishing at that job, specifically about the importance of deadlines, the general process of production, and things like that. I’m still up in the air as to whether or not I was smart to keep that job as long as I did. Some days, it feels like a huge mistake. Other days, I think, “It taught me a lot. It was worth it.”

But you know what? I never, ever loved it. And if I were still working there, I wouldn’t be happy or fulfilled at all. A life without joy or fulfillment is sort of the definition of epic fail, so you need to avoid that at all costs.

Look, you mention wanting to go to college for English. That’s exactly what I did, and it’s lots of fun. So do it! College, if nothing else, is a great way to avoid the real world. (I suspect college was invented by the ancients as a way of staying out of the fields for a few more years.) But the best, coolest thing about college is that it’s utterly unpredictable. Most colleges will force you to take a well-rounded schedule of courses, which means that you’ll end up studying things you never would have imagined studying. One of those things may just strike a chord in you and whisk you into a life and a career you never could have imagined. At the very least, you’ll get lots of fodder for writing. I’ve used this example before, but when I was in college, I took a course in astronomy that — years later — inspired a short story about infidelity that used the life cycle of stars as an important metaphor.

Living a full and interesting life — learning things — will make you a better writer. Full stop.

You mention being interested in environmental biology and history. Great! STUDY THEM. It doesn’t matter if you want a degree in them or not (though you may change your mind). What matters is that you have a passionate interest in SOMETHING other than pounding on a keyboard. Exploit that. Use it. The acquisition of knowledge is good for its own sake, but it also always leads to better, stronger writing.

And the side effect, of course, is that even if the writing gods choose NOT to smile upon you, you will still be leading a fun, interesting, fulfilling life.

As always, I hope this advice has helped someone out there, but especially this week’s questioner! Please comment and ask questions below — I love hearing from y’all!

Next week: Cursing in literature. One of my favorite fucking topics.


  1. I have to say, this blog entry was perfect! This is exactly what I’ve been antagonizing over for a while now. Thank you!

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