The more things change.... (Surviving as a Writer, 1991)

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they are the same.)

Here is a guest editorial I wrote for Event magazine in 1991.

Surviving as a Writer

When Dale (David Zieroth) invited me to write a guest editorial and suggested as a topic, Surviving as a Writer, and I had to think rather than just grouse about it, one of my first thoughts was of a student who complained about being assigned to describe the plight of a fictional character: "How can I know how she feels?" he asked. "You use your imagination," I said, tempted to add, do you know what I mean? Because the expression on his face suggested he didn't: that he was not in the habit of drawing each day from his human capacity for invention.

I bean writing short fiction not because my imagination was unexplored territory, but because I needed to make what I imagined real. I wanted to be a writer and I started with short stories because I thought it would be easier to write something short.  I confessed as much to another writer once, as a way of describing ow naive I had been, and she remarked that we must all have been a little naïve to get into it. The person I'm referring to is more experienced than I am, she has more books on her shelf; she's further down the road. Myself I'm only far enough along to be able to glance back and see that a distance exists between then and now.

Imagination is one essential survival tool. The ability to stay on the road is another.
 As for putting food on the table for myself and first one daughter, now another, and making sure we have somewhere to put the table, I quit my last full time job about fifteen years ago. I recall the urgency I felt to get on with what I really wanted to do, to be a writer. At the time I was editor of a small newspaper, and though I wrote many thousands of words each week - columns, editorials, news features, reports on oil pipeline inquiries, Indian land claim negotiations - I did not consider myself a real writer, just as we who worked there did not consider our newspaper a real newspaper, not in the sense the New York Times was a newspaper.

My plan was to support myself by working as a free-lance writer while learning to write fiction in my spare time. Though I wasn't sure what free-lance writers actually did, I forged ahead with characteristic impulsiveness and, of course, found out over time that as a free-lance writer you do whatever you can do. One thing you must do is learn to live with a deficit. Since it is bound to be microscopic compared to what Ottawa and Washington run up, you may even feel virtuous since you're doing it FOR LITERATURE.

My mother never understood. As each new move - geographical, personal, career - seemed to entrench me in rather than eliminate my precarious position in life, she worried she might end up having to take care of me and mine. Despite my promise to outlast her, if only for this reason, the fact that I was not covered for my own funeral expenses bothered her a lot.

Imagination. The determination to stay on the road. A thorough disregard for regular pay cheques, insurance benefits, pension plans.

In her book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard describes the writer's job as follows: "Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spins the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair." Faith. That's something else that is crucial to surviving as a writer, for as Dillard also writes, in the same book: "This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing right next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else."

Which leads directly to my "host of readers" fantasy. While walking with a long time friend whose first book had just been published, we talked about the expectations we'd had when we wanted to be writers. As a kid who read while she was supposed to be doing most everything else, and who grew up to be the kind of person who opens newspapers and magazines to the book pages first, I had assumed, I told her, that a host of readers existed out there, people who were interested in, even eager for each season's new books. The profound indifference of the general population to books, to fiction in particular, was as hard to swallow as the lesson that short doesn't mean easier when it comes to writing stories. Still...

I'm working on a novel now and that's hard too. In the process of making the fiction real to myself I feel like an archaeologist gluing together the pieces of an object whose final shape she has only heard about. An act of utter faith, and, in my case, and act in slow motion.

A friend who travels the world from one meditation retreat to another called me the last time he passed through town. "How's it going?" he asked.

"Well, I'm doing it," I said. "But it's hard to see that it's getting done."

"Don't worry. My meditation teachers  say we must never check on our progress. And if we can't help ourselves, to limit the checking to once every ten years."

That too seemed a useful thing to remember about surviving as a writer.