Sunday, February 26, 2012


Such a Deal
“God,” I prayed, “let me write for a living.”
Through my garret door strode a dude wearing a red suit and brimstone cologne.
He grinned. “Let’s talk.”
“What? You want my soul?”
He laughed. “A writing career’s not worth that. I’ll accept your sanity.”
Decades later, I’m still in my garret.
He’s still laughing.


I’ve been invited to participate in a panel called “Writing Is a Real Job” at the Left Coast Crime conference at the end of March, in Sacramento, California. This assignment has got me thinking about writing as a career. Specifically it has made me wonder if I qualify to talk about this subject. Me? A real writer?

Whenever Susan and I go on vacation, we find ourselves talking to strangers, often in warm, friendly bars. Inevitably someone asks us the question “What do you do?” We refuse to answer. It’s not that we’re shy, or ashamed of what we do, or especially unfriendly. It’s just that we don’t talk about our work when we’re on vacation. We work side by side, fifty hours a week, fifty weeks a year, and the reason we’re in that bar somewhere in the tropics is to forget about the publishing business.

In recent years, however, I’ve developed the sheer brazen gall to say, “I’m a writer.” That warms up the conversation, shines a big spotlight on me, allows me to brag about my books, and gives me a chance to pretend to be modest, just this guy doing his job. I don’t pass out bookmarks or collect emails for my mailing list. But I do say out loud what for decades I’ve been too shy to say: “I’m a writer.”

Why haven’t I dared to say this all my adult life? Have I only recently earned the right? In fact, I’ve been writing all my adult life, and have always been able to make a few dollars doing it. I’ve led a literary life as a bookseller, a free-lance editor, a small-press publisher, and a teacher of creative writing. Along the way I’ve written a lot of books and a ton of stories, and a few of those books and a few dozen stories have appeared in print. Some even brought me some money.

It is true that most of the writing that has earned me a living has been crafting contracts, press releases, catalog copy, back cover copy, and business correspondence. When I’m writing contracts, business letters, and press releases, I’m writing to live. When I’m in the midst of making a novel, on the other hand, I live to write. And by God, I consider that a real job, a respectable job. For practical reasons, I don’t allow myself the addictive pleasure of writing fiction during “business hours,” Monday through Saturday. But I write my fiction all day Sunday, every Sunday, and even a few hours every day on vacation.

I’m a writer. You are too. Say after me: “I am a writer.” We writers are writers because we must write. We made a deal with the devil, I suppose, and the deal was worth it.

I look forward to being on that panel and hearing what other professional writers have to say. If you’re coming to Left Coast Crime, I invite you to sit in with us Friday, March 30, at 2:15 p.m. The panel will be moderated by Simon Wood, and my fellow panelists will be Jill Amadio, Beth Henderson, and LJ Sellers.


  1. Good post, John.
    I've written all my life too: business correspondence when I was an administrative assistant, resumes and cover letters when I was the sole proprietor of a resume writing service, etc., and throughout my life, short stories and eventually a novel.
    I now write full-time and I consider it my job. I spend more hours on writing and marketing each week than I ever did at any of my other jobs. I don't have to; I WANT to because this is the very best "job" I've ever had!

  2. I enjoyed this post, John. An acquaintance of mine told me that she envisioned me at the computer all day long- writing. I was. The only thing is that I was writing out the psychiatric evaluations that filled my days. Since then, I've added more time for creative writing and less for the other kind.

  3. I had a full time day job when I started writing. It took me about eight years before my first book was published, but I'll always believe the reason I made it to my NY publishers was that I took my writing seriously and treated it like a job from the very beginning of my journey. I set myself a schedule of 7 to 10 every night and as much as I could on weekends. It helped to stop on the dot of ten, even if I was in the middle of a sentence. In fact, it was better to stop there because it made me more anxious to get back to it the next day, and in those eight years I didn't miss many days. I always tell beginners to start treating writing like a real job from day one, because it is.

  4. The short tale at the beginning says it all most eloquently.

  5. Thank you Pat, and Theresa, and BEth, and John. Nice to hear from all you fellow toilers in the fields of the Word.

  6. This is a good point you bring up, John. I think I'd think twice before saying out loud that I'm a writer. I think there are cultural implications. Americans are overwhelmingly concerned with economics, and my writing does not support me, so I feel the bars of that trap. But the reality of course, is that you can say whatever you want.

    On the other hand, I know more than anybody else in the world about how a mummified sixteenth century conquistador would use social media, so at least I've got that going for me.

  7. Loved the post John, yes indeed we are writers and be proud to say so. I do not care about stigmas, heck I'm a stigma so what. We write, we love to write, we are driven to we are writers, no matter what genre you are in. Thank you for this piece. Augie

  8. I love your post, John. Absolutely love it. I AM a writer and have been since my last year in college when I worked as a "cub" reporter. But nothing fills me with such joy as when writing a novel. :)

  9. Bill, Augie, Jean...thanks so much for the feedback and the input. I think it's important for us to be proud of what we take seriously, and also to support each other's claims to the legitimacy of our writing identities.

  10. Okay, John, I'm repeating your words:

    I’m a writer. You are too. Say after me: “I am a writer.” We writers are writers because we must write.

    Ain't it grsnd?

  11. And I misspelled my last word...darn.