You’ve also figured out, because I’ve written it more than once this week, that one of the themes of NEXT BOOK is STUCKNESS vs. POSSIBILITY.
So. Here’s the problem.
Will NEXT BOOK imply that the only way out of the stuckness is an unreal event?
Am I creating a story in which the possibility given to the characters is an impossible possibility for the reader?
Am I suggesting that the only way out of our current stuck-and-possibly-dying world, the only path away from political cruelty and late capitalism and Millennial burnout, the only way these characters’ lives change is through A DOOR INTO NARNIA or AN INVITATION TO WIZARD SCHOOL or FIRST CONTACT FROM AN ALIEN SPECIES* or something like that?
I’ve been thinking about two of my favorite fantasy series, The Raven Cycle and The Magicians. Both are set in our current world, and both hinge on characters wanting something more (which is a specific Raven Cycle phrase, gotta cite your sources) and then finding it through a combination of hard work and emotional honesty and friendship and discovering that magic is real.
I guess the question is: if magic weren’t part of these stories, would these characters have found their something more?
I know that these types of stories include enough real-life experiences, like FACING YOUR FEARS and ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY and WORKING AS A TEAM, that readers can take the feelings that the characters have and the lessons they learn and apply them to their own lives.** No magic required (besides the magic of fiction, of course).
But if I’m specifically writing a story about people in their late 30s (aka Millennials, yes we are THAT OLD NOW) feeling stuck and then finding new possibilities, and if those possibilities are not available to the reader, what story am I actually telling them?
That, since they don’t have a Narnia or Hogwarts or Brakebills or Glendower, they have to stay stuck?
That’s the big problem at the core of NEXT BOOK.
I’m hoping I’ll discover the answer as I write it. ❤️
*We all know that first contact from an alien species would be disastrous, right? Look at how America treats the actual humans trying to cross its borders.
**How many times have I thought about what Henry says to Gansey in The Raven King? Or Julia, in The Magician King, becoming who she is becoming? (Also, yes I just noticed the way the two titles parallel each other.)
When I wrote The Biographies of Ordinary People, I not only gave each chapter a title but specifically styled them in a way that both paid homage to previous works and told the reader what they could expect from this one: “Meredith writes about her worst fear” and “Anne gives Meredith advice” are echoes of Anne of Green Gables’ “Mrs. Rachel Lynde is surprised” and Little Women’s “Meg goes to Vanity Fair,” and The Biographies of Ordinary People is also an episodic, domestic narrative about artistically ambitious girls growing into adulthood.
(Quick side note: if you have not yet read The Annotated Little Women, which I did not realize existed until this year and just finished reading, GET YOURSELF A COPY. It includes so much information on how Louisa May Alcott structured her writing life, combined income-earning projects with passion projects, and balanced both writing and work— because she served as a Civil War Nurse — and writing and caretaking.* I found it hugely inspiring.)
When I started thinking about NEXT BOOK, I had a particular phrase in mind that I wanted to use as the first chapter title: The Leftover Christmas Family.
Except whenever I thought about starting the book with the words “The Leftover Christmas Family,” I kept hearing them read in Neil Gaiman’s voice, and the characters at the center of the narrative were suddenly twenty years younger. They were still themselves, thank goodness, which means I’ve done a solid job of creating them, but they were just… approaching the end of adolescence instead of the beginning of middle age.
Which, okay, I could definitely write a book about teenagers, and I could even have the adult characters reflect on the events of their youth, the way Gaiman does in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, if I wanted to pull the middle-age thing in there too.
But even if that story included all of the events I currently plan to include in this story, even if the plot were exactly the same, the style of the book wouldn’t help me address the central theme of STUCKNESS vs. POSSIBILITY.
That’s a middle-age conflict, after all (thanks, Erik Erikson). The adolescent version is more like LACK OF AGENCY vs. POSSIBILITY. Both of them are, in a sense, about being limited by external structures (family, money, time, societal expectations and prejudices, obligations to school/work) but one of them suggests that there’s a whole big world waiting for you as soon as you come of age, and the other… well, that’s what NEXT BOOK is going to be about.
So I thought really hard about what I wanted this book to be, and I also tried to make space for my mind to solve the problem without my thinking about it (MORE ON THIS NEXT WEEK), and then I realized that I could have one of the characters say the words “leftover Christmas family” instead, or think them, or maybe just describe the feeling of being left behind.
The point is that I recognized that making this choice (to use chapter titles, to use this specific phrase as the first chapter title) would lead me down a stylistic path that would not serve this story, so I threw out that choice and started looking for better ones.
I swear it made more sense in my head.
Tomorrow I’m going to address the big problem at the center of NEXT BOOK that I haven’t figured out yet.**
*According to The Annotated Little Women, Lizzie Alcott was going to be the family caretaker and remain at home as the Alcott parents aged. Louisa was going to be an independent spinster-by-choice and career woman. Then Lizzie died, and Louisa had to step into the caretaking role. Louisa also raised May Alcott Nieriker’s daughter Lulu after May died, because Lulu’s father was too busy traveling for work. (Yes, seriously.)
**No, not the problem of whether the setting should be in a real or ficticious city. That’s actually a small problem.
Today I’m going to ask myself the same question, only this time it’s about time period.
I already know that NEXT BOOK takes place in the present. But… which present?
Is this a generalized present where people have smartphones and use Wikipedia and Uber but don’t, like, reference President Trump?
Or is this a very specific present that did in fact exist, with all of its political concerns, viral articles, memes, etc.?
(I mean, I don’t really think I’m going to put memes in the book, but you get the idea.)
Setting the story in a generalized present might help the reader to feel like the events of the story — or the emotions of the story and the choices the characters make during the story, since the events themselves are a bit… unreal* — could also happen to them. Or also apply to them. Or also reflect the questions they’re currently asking themselves.
The generalized present also gives the story a bit more longevity before it starts to feel like something that happened in the past, though that happens to all stories eventually. (They may have updated Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret to include contemporary menstrual products,** but the Pre-Teen Sensations still don’t use YouTube or smartphones, still have the freedom to roam the neighborhood by themselves, and still wish they were named “Mavis.”)
The specific present, on the other hand, lets me get specific. The current outline has the story beginning at Christmas, for example; if I were to go ahead and say “okay, this is Christmas 2018,” I could include references to real-world events like the government shutdown and the viral Millennial burnout essay — both of which happened after I started plotting this story, but which fit all-too-neatly into the themes of STUCKNESS vs. POSSIBILITY.
Of course, the trouble with setting a story in the specific present if the present itself is literally at the same time you are writing the story is that you might have to rewrite the story if a world-changing event happens that you didn’t include in your outline. This happened in The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2: 2004-2016; I had to rework the planned ending thanks to the way 2016 actually ended.
The other trouble with setting a story in a specific present has to do with the huge lag time between writing and publication. I am very likely to indie-publish NEXT BOOK, which’ll cut at least a year off that lag, but even if I began my story at Christmas 2018 I would be unlikely to publish the story until Christmas 2019 at the earliest — which would be a nice parallel, and still within the range of recent past to feel contemporary, but once you start thinking about publishing around Christmas 2020 the whole thing becomes… well, it starts to feel like a historical piece.
Why should people in 2020 care about what characters thought in 2018? We’ll have had so much more to care about since then.
On the other hand, I could always create a generalized present in which the government is shut down, or in which there is another type of political or economic situation that makes everyone feel stuck, like they wish they were in a better world but they have to live in the one they’ve got now, which is also kind of DYING or is at least scheduled to become significantly more uninhabitable over the next 100-200 years, and they can’t figure out how to change or save it.
That’s where the story starts.
It also starts at Christmas, or at least I’m pretty sure it does.
And that’s where we’ll start tomorrow — with a discussion of style, and how the words you choose affect how you tell the story. ❤️
*NEXT BOOK may be set in the real world — at least in the beginning — but it’ll be shelved with the SF&F.
**While this choice was ostensibly made to avoid misleading young readers into thinking that menstruation involved belts, it weakens the book’s integrity as a piece of historical fiction — which, of course, is what all books eventually become.
But what if your project is set in the real world?
Instead of writing some big ol’ essay explaining why real-world worldbuilding is just as important as SF&F worldbuilding, I’m going to give you some examples of what I’m thinking about, as I worldbuild my NEXT BOOK.
Today, I’ll focus on setting.
I already know that NEXT BOOK takes place in the Midwest, but not in the rural, pre-internet Midwest of The Biographies of Ordinary People. Nor does it take place in a small town.
Instead, we’re in what you might call a “flyover city,” and I’m using that term for a reason: the city itself has everything you might need, there’s your mall and your Walmart and multiple grocery stores, and a local sports team and a community theater and a small college and plenty of jobs and etc. etc. etc.*
But once you’re there, it’s hard to get out. There’s a municipal airport, if you want to take a terrifying prop plane to Chicago before transferring onto a commercial jet. There’s no Amtrak or Greyhound. You could get in a car and drive for a few hours, but that would only get you to another city just like this one.
Why am I specifically choosing this setting? Because the tension between “being part of a community” and “being stuck in this community,” which I am not going to argue is the central tension of the Midwest but is probably one of the top five, is an important element of this book.
As is the feeling of being leftover, flown-over, etc.
The question then becomes: do I set the story in a specific city?
ADVANTAGES: a stronger sense of place, can reference actual landmarks, won’t get stuck in the “whoops, I put the municipal airport on the east side of town but that doesn’t make sense with where I put the college” thing.
ADDITIONAL ADVANTAGES: a stronger sense of reality. While I was able to get away with creating “Kirkland” for Biographies because tiny rural towns like Kirkland are a dime-a-dozen and the reader could easily imagine that this fictitious town actually existed, I’m not sure whether I could do the same thing with a city of about 100,000 people.
First because we already know these cities exist, even if it’s only in the “I was in The Music Man in high school so I am aware of a place called Davenport, Iowa” sense, so making up a new city out of whole cloth would be, like… where would I place it? Would I need to create a fictitious manufacturer that had an outpost over there, ’cause these days it’s easy to see where General Mills and Purina and etc. are set up and I’d probably get in trouble for implying that they also have factories in this fake city? Would I need to create a fake airport code for the municipal airport?
Second because it would feel kind of ridiculous to be all “here’s Illinoisapolis, home of Illinoisapolis University and Steer Motors, please believe that it’s real.”
DISADVANTAGES: you can set all kinds of stories in New York or Los Angeles or Seattle because those places are large enough that anything can happen. Plus, enough stories are set in those areas that they kind of cancel each other out, in the “well, if this one character describes this monument as unattractive, we can’t really take it personally” sense.
Once you get into a place that feels more like a community where you stay than a setting for multiple potential adventures,** well… people within that community are going to know what you wrote about what the city feels like, and what your characters think of the architecture, and etc. Plus, if there aren’t as many stories set in that particular area, you run the risk of yours being one of the few windows into that world, meaning other people might form opinions about the place based on your book, and if you write anything negative (even if you already wrote 100 positive things first)…
Well, you see where I’m going with this.***
I’m going to stop here because I need to move on to Billfold work; tomorrow I’ll explore what it means to set a real-world story in a general time period vs. a specific time period.
I should note that just writing this post helped me clarify more of what NEXT BOOK needed to focus on and why those particular setting elements were important to the characters and their story, so thanks for reading. ❤️
*If you are thinking “why does it matter that this place has a mall and jobs and stuff,” keep in mind that I grew up in a town that had none of that.
**Is this also what one of the characters in NEXT BOOK might think about her current community? Will her opinion change during the course of the story? HMMMMMMMM…
***You could also read between the lines and ask me “well, why don’t you set the book in a real mid-sized Midwestern city where you do not currently live?” My answer is “because I don’t know what that city FEELS LIKE, and I don’t have the time or money to embed myself there, so I’m either going to write about where I am right now**** or make up a city that is remarkably like where I am right now except it has a fake name.”
****Because people often write books to tackle the questions and feelings they are experiencing right now, I’ll link to yet another Maggie Stiefvater blog post that explains it better than I could since I haven’t given you a reading assignment for today LOL.
So this week I want to look at worldbuilding, mostly because that’s where I’m at in terms of THE NEXT BOOK.
Unlike The Biographies of Ordinary People, where the world of the story was not only “the real world” but also a specific place in a specific time period, THE NEXT BOOK… well, it isn’t set in the small Missouri town where I grew up during the time period in which I grew up, so I’m having to do a little more thinking about where this story takes place and what that means.
Before we get into that, I want to share this excellent conversation on worldbuilding, from The Ezra Klein Show:
Speculative fiction author N.K. Jemisin, who recently won her third Hugo Award for the third volume in the Broken Earth Trilogy (volumes 1 and 2 also won the Hugo, and it was the first time an author won three years in a row), takes Klein through the initial steps in creating a world.
Klein, like many of us, bases his world on something he’s already familiar with — in this case, the Black Rock Desert where they host Burning Man. But even if you know an area’s topography, and even if you know what it feels like to watch the stars come out over the playa, you still might not know how the society who lives in this similar-but-fictional desert gets their food. Or how they practice basic hygiene in a land with very little water, and what that implies about beauty standards and what they find beautiful.
Jemisin urges both Klein and, by extension, all of us to think seriously about the worlds we are creating. Does a desert society need to develop a relationship with a society that has water? What does that relationship look like? How are governments organized? Who is systematically oppressed, and in what way does that oppression benefit those in power? What happens to individuals who try to step outside of the roles society has set for them?
Jemisin also urges us to do our research. Even if we are writing books set in non-Earth worlds, there’s still a lot we can learn from how societies on Earth have interacted; like, if you want to know how a desert society and a water society might interact, there are real-world analogues throughout history that you can study.
This book, written in Lonely Planet-style, takes readers through what they might expect to find in your typical, cliché, not-fully-thought-out fantasy world:
HORSES are of a breed unique to Fantasyland. They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest. Sometimes they do not require food or water. They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the DARK LORD are only half an hour behind. They never otherwise stumble. Nor do they ever make life difficult for Tourists by biting or kicking their riders or one another. They never resist being mounted or blow out so that their girths slip, or do any of the other things that make horses so chancy in this world. For instance, they never shy and seldom whinny or demand sugar at inopportune moments. But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them. If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a VALLEY while you talk. Apart from this inexplicable quirk, Horse can be used just like bicycles, and usually are. Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no STALLION ever shows an interest in a mare; and few Horses are described as geldings. It therefore seems probable that they breed by pollination. This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals. It also explains why the ANGLO-SAXON COSSACKS and the DESERT NOMADS appear to have a monopoly on horse-breeding. They alone possess the secret of how to pollinate them.
I’ll stop here for today, because I’ve given you a pile of resources and a 90-minute podcast to listen to (and please please please listen to all 90 minutes, the last bit goes into the ways Americans rank each other and there is this whole section on why people feel nervous around their favorite authors that I very very much want to unpack*).
One final note, which will lead us into tomorrow’s discussion: just because you’re setting your book in “the real world” doesn’t mean you get to skip the worldbuilding process. My NEXT BOOK is real-world-based, but I’m still asking myself questions like “will this take place in an actual time period e.g. 2018 or a generic present, and what do both of these choices imply for the story and how it might resonate with a reader?”
That’s where we’ll start on Tuesday. ❤️
*I don’t think we get nervous around authors because we’ve culturally decided authors are more important than other types of people, as Jemisin argues (and finds baffling) — or, more specifically, I don’t think we get nervous around our favorite authors just because of that. There’s also this element of “you have created something that became very important to me, and I want to tell you how much I appreciate your work, and I know I only have 10 seconds to do this before you move on to the next person in the signing line and/or before it becomes socially inappropriate for me to continue talking to you in the airport/supermarket/wherever.”
Plus there’s often an extra dash of either “I have a parasocial relationship with you thanks to what you’ve posted about your life online, and maybe if I say the right combination of words you’ll find me interesting too and we can be friends”** OR “I don’t want you to know how much I know about you from reading your Twitter because I don’t want to come across as a creep or weirdo, so I am going to try to avoid making that obvious and that’s also making me nervous.”
**I have navigated the fan-friend route, though it did not derive from a single ten-second conversation and I doubt it ever could; it came from repeated positive interactions, the way most friendships form.*** It was also unexpected, in that I did not go in with the goal of forming a friendship. We just kept ending up at the same professional and social events, and there you go.
***NO YOU CAN’T FORCE THE REPEATED POSITIVE INTERACTIONS, THIS IS CALLED STALKING.
Technically, I’ve only had the nasty part of the cold since Tuesday; the first few days were what I usually expect from a cold, i.e. a steadily dripping nose and a general malaise, but instead of getting better the whole thing got worse, and at this point I’ve coughed so much I’ve lost my voice. It’s a throat cough (there are boogers) and not a chest cough so it’s not bronchitis, and if it isn’t better by Monday I’ll see a doctor.
I already work from home, so that hasn’t been a problem, and I took “half days” on Tuesday and Wednesday to get some rest in the afternoons — and by “half days” I mean “just Billfold stuff and I’ll take care of my other freelance work over the weekend when I assume I’ll be feeling better.”
Which, yeah, working on the weekend will be a drag, and the constant laundry I’ve been doing over the past few days has been a drag, and the fact that I’ve been eating my way through my freezer’s supply of homemade soup that I stashed in there for just this type of occasion but will have to remake and restash after this is all done will be a drag, in the sense that the work never ends.
Or, more specifically: taking a break doesn’t make the work disappear. It just lets it pile up.
But it’s no big deal, right? This week I have a grody-odie cold, and when it’s done I’ll spend a few days cooking and cleaning and catching up on freelance stuff and then everything will be back to normal.
Except the week before the cold, my sister and her family were in town, and I was spending most nights over at my folks’ place visiting with them, and that wasn’t “normal.”
And the week before that was Christmas, and that wasn’t “normal.”
And the month before that, a few people I care about got ill back-to-back-to-back, so I spent time hanging out in emergency rooms and helping them recover, and that wasn’t “normal.”
And right before that was the five weeks I spent on that exhausting project, and that wasn’t “normal.”
I think you see where I’m going with this.
(I’m also starting to wonder if that isn’t part of why I got this cold right now, and such a bad one.)
So, yeah. Things get in the way.
What do we do?
See what you choose when your choices are limited
Right now I have to (or am choosing to) devote several hours of my day to “lying on the couch and coughing boogers into tissues.” (I’m counting this as a choice because I could also choose to power through it! I’m hoping this choice will get me well faster, even though it means having to devote future hours to all of the work I’m currently leaving undone.)
Last week I chose to spend most of my free time with the fam.
But last week I also chose to continue going to my Les Mills classes at the YMCA, even though I could have given those hours to FAM TIME.
And this week, even though I could have given this hour to BOOGERVILLE, I am sucking down cough suppressants to write this post.
What did I give up instead? Playing my piano. Cooking meals (well, I technically cooked the food I am pulling out of my freezer and reheating, but you get the point). Reading, beyond the reading I needed to get done for a book club. The leisure stuff.*
This week, I also gave up outlining/planning/thinking about the novel I hope to start drafting in February, simply because I don’t have any extra brain to put there. (One of the things that happens, when life gets in the way, is that all the extra background thought that might go into solving a creative problem goes towards solving the life problem. I’m going to do a whole post on that idea later, because it’s so important — and it’s a creative struggle I don’t know how to solve.)
When your life stops being “normal,” what do you choose to maintain and what do you give up?
Remember the Sheelzebub Principle
I’ll quote Sheelzebub again:
Can I live with this for another month? Another year? Another five years? Ten years? The rest of my life?
If the way that life is getting in the way isn’t working, figure out what you need to do to change it. This is incredibly difficult work, because it often involves saying no to people you care about, ending relationships, changing jobs, etc. etc. etc.
It can be even harder if you don’t have resources to help you make the change: money, a network of contacts, a couch you can crash on, an affordable babysitter or day care service, an elderly parent willing to work with a home care aide who isn’t you, etc. etc. etc.
I have done the hard work of ending things I can no longer live with (and the equally hard work of postponing that ending because maybe things will get better and I won’t have had to say no?), but every time I realize I’m going to have to set a boundary or make a change it is still just as hard.**
Look for people who are going through what you’re going through, and see how they do it
If I were to type some yip yip about how of course you can find the time to do THE WORK you want to do while also having small children/eldercare responsibilities/a day job/a chronic illness/etc. you could rightfully say shut up Nicole, you have none of those things so you don’t know what you’re talking about.
(I would argue that I do have a day job and family responsibilities, but I understand all too well how freelance work is different from employee work, and how being a daughter who lives near her parents is different from, say, actively parenting a toddler.)
However, there are plenty of people who are both making incredible creative work and writing about the process of making that work while balancing their day jobs or health issues or parenting/caretaking responsibilities.
Go see what they have to say about it.
I don’t want to make a list of recommendations because that feels like using people as INSPIRATION PRAWNS, which, gross, they’re people.
But I will share this video from Mikey Neumann of Movies With Mikey. Although he did not create it so it would fit exactly in this blog post, he did create it to share “how life-threatening challenges have shaped him and his work,” so I’m hoping he won’t mind my sharing it with you.
That video’s almost a half-hour long, so I’ll end here.
There’s always going to be life getting in the way of our ideal (or even our “normal”) life. It is our challenge and our joy to keep making choices that bring us closer to THE LIFE we want, and to prioritize THE WORK we want to do. ❤️
*But I’m also watching the new Vanity Fair miniseries during BOOGERTIME, so maybe that counts as leisure? Painful, have-to-sanitize-my-laptop-afterwards leisure, but still.
**Sometimes I wonder if my ability to successfully set boundaries and change certain aspects of my life just means I haven’t really faced anything truly hard yet.
THE WORK: literally your life’s work, although you can think of it as “the current creative project you want to complete” if you want to keep things simple. The stuff you’d like to be working on, during an ideal day.
THE LIFE: the way you’d like your ideal day to proceed. Maybe you want to rise with the sun and walk along the river that runs behind your home. Maybe you want to sleep in and do a couple hours of work before meeting a friend for lunch. Maybe you want a leisurely breakfast with your family. Maybe you want to wake up and do yoga and fill out your Daily Spreadsheet and look for cause-and-effect relationships between your food and sleep and mood and everything else (hey, that one’s me).
The trouble we get into — and I get into this trouble all the time — is thinking that we can’t have THE LIFE until we complete a certain amount of THE WORK. When we are THE FAMOUS, for example, we’ll be able to take those morning walks, because then we won’t have to deal with our current morning rush because we’ll be famous.
As I wrote yesterday, it’s a lot easier to figure out how to take those walks now.
Don’t let your desire to buy plants convince you that you need to write a successful young-adult series
So I mentioned the other day that I spent part of this year (way too much of this year?) wanting my career to be like Maggie Stiefvater’s, because then I could have an office with a bunch of musical instruments and plants in it.
There was actually a second reason I wanted that type of career, and we’ll get to that, but let’s start with the office. Go take a look at this post on Maggie Stiefvater’s Tumblr, and you’ll see why I was suddenly asking myself whether I should try a young-adult series like The Raven Cycle. Because maybe that would make me MORE SUCCESSFUL, and if I were MORE SUCCESSFUL I could have more plants… and I was back in the trap again.
Turns out you can just buy more plants. They are relatively inexpensive! (It’s the pots that cost money.) I also bought a piano, which was… not inexpensive.*
And there I was, with THE LIFE I had been dreaming about.
Now I had to figure out what type of work I wanted to do next.
Sometimes the work and the life do correlate
Just over a decade ago, I saw Jonathan Coulton open for They Might Be Giants. I did not know who Jonathan Coulton was at the time. (This would change.) I did know that I was watching this guy sing and play guitar and talk to the audience when he wasn’t singing or playing, and I also knew that I wanted to do that.
So I got myself out of debt as quickly as I could,** and then I bought a guitar (and I probably could have bought the guitar before I got out of debt, but I am an orderly sort) and then I taught myself how to play (it helped that I grew up in a family of musicians and that my undergrad degree is in music composition) and then I started looking into how to book shows.
I wasn’t an official cruise performer; I was part of what was called the “shadow cruise,” where attendees created their own slate of performances.
Still. I wanted to be onstage with a guitar, singing and talking to an audience, and doing THE WORK made that happen.
I spent just over a year as a full-time performing musician, during which I got myself back into debt (to the tune — pun intended — of $14,000) and realized that THE LIFE I had created through this work wasn’t working.*** Meanwhile I was picking up these writing gigs, and people were asking me to do more freelance writing work, and that was making a lot more money than the music, and… well, I ended up making a career change.
But the point I’m trying to make is that sometimes you have to do THE WORK to get THE LIFE you want, in the sense that if you want to be onstage performing for people, you have to have something worth performing.
But you don’t have to become THE FAMOUS first, and you don’t even have to hide in your apartment until you write the perfect song. You can go to open-mic night two weeks after you get your new guitar, and you can perform for people. (Ask me how I know.)
I’ve gotten to a lot of places by seeing someone else doing something I wanted to do and then asking myself how I could do it. I watched TED Talks and then started volunteering to be on panels at local SF&F conventions. I read Casey Johnston’s Ask a Swole Woman columns and then got into powerlifting (for about six months before switching to the YMCA’s Les Mills classes, which I liked a lot better).
I started this blog because — well, did you actually go read the Maggie Stiefvater post I linked to earlier? It wasn’t just the home I wanted. It was also the ability to talk freely about THE WORK and, honestly, THE SELF, which is something I don’t always get to do in my current career as a personal-finance writer (who’s also authored a couple of books).
I want to be inspiring and transparent and helpful. I know I’m a particular type of person (INTJ: I see the world through a systems-and-patterns lens) so my particular brand of inspiration might not apply to everybody. But you’re here reading this now, and I hope you come back on Monday for the next post. ❤️
*Yes, we’re going to discuss the way money fits into all of this, because it’s a huge part of both THE WORK and THE LIFE (and while I want to say that you can do a lot of THE WORK on “very little money,” because I did, I also know that my definition of “very little money” is around $20K/year, which is well above the federal poverty line for a single person, and I also had the type of minimum-payment-every-month good credit that allowed me to get into $14K of credit card debt, so yes, money plays a huge role in all of this, we will discuss).
**Oh look it’s the money connection again.
***I am well aware that one of the reasons people aspire towards so-called “creative careers” is because the life they have created through their current work isn’t working; I also know from experience that quitting your executive assistant job to become a full-time performing musician can change your life, so I’m not going to say this is a bad idea, just remember that you can also go for a walk or play your guitar at the open mic without quitting your job, and if you do want to change your work to change your life, remember that THE WORK takes work.
So I want to spend the rest of this week discussing two things: THE WORK and THE LIFE.
These are both topics that will take more than two days to discuss, of course, so I will undoubtedly come back to them in the future — but I want to start the conversation now because I just read this Man Repeller article titled Freelance vs. Full Time and BELIEVE ME IT IS RELEVANT.
Actually, it’s relevant in more ways than one. The piece is a discussion between freelancer Meghan Nesmith and full-timer Logan Sachon, both of whom were former colleagues at The Billfold (Logan being one of the original Billfold founders).
So I hope they won’t mind that I hinge this blog post on a quote from Logan, about what she initially thought freelancing could be:
The dream was to go on a long walk in the middle of the day, to meet friends who are also freelance in the middle of the day, to not get out of bed until the middle of the day, to knock off for happy hour at 4PM. (To not … work?) Whenever someone Instagrams from Central Park in the middle of the day, or posts a picture of a cake they just baked to procrastinate for a few hours — that’s the stuff that makes freelancing really attractive.
If you read the whole piece, you’ll understand that both Logan and Meghan immediately disavow this “dream” of the no-work freelance life — because, of course, it is completely unrealistic. Freelancers work very hard. (Ask me how I know.)
But I want to call your attention to the disparity between “the dream” and the work of doing your work.
If you want to bake a cake, you don’t need to become a freelance writer first.
When I teach my writing classes (and by the way, you can sign up for my next online class RIGHT NOW, it starts Jan 12) I ask my students to spend some time writing about their ideal workday. Where would they sit? What would they wear? Would there be a cup of tea nearby? What sounds would they hear (and/or block out)?
This is a super-common workshop activity — I first learned about it from Barbara Sher’s book Wishcraft — but I add a twist. I ask my students to consider their ideal workdays in conjunction with their other responsibilities.
That was the part I hated most about the Wishcraft exercise; Sher shares all of these ideal days from workshop participants, and very few of them involved any work. They slept in and baked cakes and met friends for lunch. One woman, who claimed to want to start a family, described her ideal day as being alone, on a horse, while pregnant.
You get where I’m going with this. If you say you want family but your ideal day is spent alone, or if you say you want the freelance life but your ideal day is spent not freelancing, well… I think the thing you want is not what you say you want.
Same goes for whatever big creative project you dream about doing. Do you want to make the project, or are you making the project because you hope that when you’re done, your life will look more like your ideal day?
If you want to bake more cakes, you can just bake more cakes.
And if you want to start a freelance career or complete a big creative project, you’ll need to figure out when you’re going to do the work.
This is why I ask my students to imagine their ideal workday in conjunction with their current responsibilities. First, it acknowledges that the work is work, and second, it acknowledges that you probably already have a bunch of stuff chomping at your time.
(Later in my class I give students a grid with a week’s worth of hours in it, ask them to block off all of the hours they already have committed to other responsibilities including commuting/hygiene/sleep/family/etc. and ask them how many of those remaining hours they want to commit to THE WORK. It’s kind of a sobering exercise, unfortunately — and you can do it at home, here’s your grid! We’ll discuss time management and how to find more time for THE WORK at some point, because it is a super-important topic.)
Don’t let your fantasies about THE LIFE get in the way of THE WORK.
I know I know, it’s like day two and I’m already lecturing, but I fell into this trap myself over the past year, even though I know better, because it is a very powerful trap with a really big gravitational pull. (More on this tomorrow.)
Let me quote Logan again:
I don’t even know if I have a dream job. I think if I’ve ever had one, it would be being like, a New Yorker writer who works on long stories, like Kathryn Schulz or Ariel Levy or Elif Batuman.
I know I know I know I am pulling the dreamiest quotes out of what is a very practical interview about the realities of freelancing (which you should GO READ and then DISCUSS IN THE COMMENTS), but I’m doing this because I spent the past year telling myself I wanted to be like such-and-such a person* and I wanted their level of fame or whatever, and when I asked myself why it was because I saw a photo of their office and it had musical instruments and plants in it.
SO I GOT MYSELF A PIANO
AND A BUNCH OF PLANTS
And then it was like well, that problem’s solved, now I actually have to think about what work I want to do with the rest of my life.
(Obligatory yes I know not everyone can just buy a piano.)
That’s where I’m going to begin tomorrow, if you’re interested in following along. ❤️
*okay okay it was Maggie Stiefvater, go read her commandments of life and then tape them to your desk if you find them as inspiring as I do