Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Writer, Interrupted

"Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around." –Stephen King

Almost ten years ago, I decided it was time to make a career change and do what I’d always wanted to do for a living: write. I naively imagined my writerly-life-to-be as Shangri-La with a bookstore and a Starbucks. What I didn’t know was that almost no one else in my life had that same vision. Not only was I alone in my Shangri-La-bookstore-Starbucks fantasy, I was also the only working writer that many of my friends and family had ever met. They had no idea about the basics of a writer’s life, much less the idealized version I had in my head.

My friends and family were confused. For instance, why couldn’t I take their calls while I was writing? And if I did answer the phone, why wasn’t I available to talk for hours? After all, if I was self-employed, didn’t I get to do whatever I wanted? Eventually, I gave up trying to explain that when I left the world of 9-5 employment, I also left the world of a guaranteed paycheck—along with paid lunches, sick leave, and vacation. One of my friends got angry when I told her that I could not help her paint her house during the middle of my work day. People who called when I was writing left me irate messages: “Terrisa! I know you’re there! Pick up the phone!” and were irked when I didn’t call them back until after my work hours were over. My husband was aghast that “working at home” did not mean “cleans house and does laundry all day,” and told me so. I knew that if I didn’t set some firm boundaries, I would not be a writer. I would be a unemployed person who wrote occasionally.

After the people in my life reluctantly (and grudgingly) realized that I was not going to give up my bewildering new career, the complaints I heard changed. Some variation of “You work all the time” started cropping up in conversations. Instead of assuming I was available all the time, my friends and family were hesitant to call me. When my very ill mother told me she didn’t want to bother me because I was so busy all the time, I realized that I’d crossed the line from firm boundaries to tunnel vision. I pictured the pained look on people’s faces as they contemplated calling me: “Well, yes, little Lisa does need the blood transfusion right away and Terrisa’s the only one with a compatible blood type, but do we really want to call her? She’s so busy.”

I learned to ask myself, “When I was employed by someone else, would I have taken time off for this?” If the answer is “yes,” I make adjustments accordingly. I’ve learned to think in terms of what I can do instead of what I can’t. Sometimes that means I have to stay up late to meet a deadline. Sometimes it means that I have to put a project on the back burner. When I read Stephen King’s quote (above) in On Writing, that summed it up for me. Yes, I had made a deliberate choice to become a writer, along with all that it entailed. But even if I’d discovered that Shangri-La-bookstore-Starbucks place, it would have been lonely if I’d arrived all alone.
Photo courtesy of Martin.

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