30 Years of Being a Professional Writer
On the same day that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was officially released as the first single off of Nirvana’s Nevermind album, September 10, 1991, I started my first post-college job: Film critic and feature writer for the entertainment section of the Fresno Bee. I had done freelance work before — indeed, I paid for a lot of my senior year of college by writing for the Chicago Sun-Times and New City magazine — but September 10, 1991 was the start of my full-time paid career as a writer. Since that day 30 years ago now, I have never not been a professional writer; it has always been the way that I supported myself and my family. At this point, three decades in, I can’t imagine doing anything else for a living. I suppose I’m stuck, now. You may imagine I am all right with this.
Thirty years on I do not have the writing career I thought I would have when I started out. I’ve said this before and I think people disbelieve me, but: I had no intention of being a novelist, or, at the very least, I assumed that if I were to write novels, that they would be a nice occasional side hustle. What I hoped for at the time — and what I assumed would be the case — is that I would write for newspapers all my life. The gig at the Fresno Bee would lead to gigs at other newspapers, and eventually I would land up at the New York Times/Washington Post/Los Angeles Times/Chicago Tribune as a daily columnist, riffing off local and world events like idols such as Mike Royko or Molly Ivins. Twenty-two-year-old me fully expected an entire career of daily deadlines and 800-word bursts of opinion.
And, I’m not going to lie, part of me is sad I didn’t get that life. Not too sad, because, well. Hello, welcome to Whatever, which I have been writing at for twenty-three years come Monday. But I loved working at newspapers when I was there; loved coming into the newsroom and seeing and talking other reporters and writers, loved having to have everything in by 3pm, loved the whole life of it. In 1991 there was little indication just how quickly that mode of work and storied kind of job would be outmoded, outsourced and outdated, and it’s kind of a tragedy. We are not better as a nation for having our local newspapers being a half or third of what they used to be in terms of writers and editors (if they still exist at all), and taken over by hedge funds who starve the papers and squeeze their staff. We can say it was inevitable once the Internet became a thing, but I don’t think that’s it. Choices were made, large and small. Not the best choices. I miss what newspapers were, and call me silly, but I hope one day there’s a way for them to come back.
So I didn’t get that life. The life I did get, I think, is better for me. Since 2001 I’ve been writing in the same northwest corner of the office that is in the northwest corner of my house, in a village of 1,800 people in Ohio. From that one same spot (plus occasional laptop travel) have come over thirty books, split between novels and non-fiction, plus thousands of other bits of writing: blog posts, reviews, newspaper and online columns, scripts and script notes, newsletters and corporate consulting. A lot of it done in a bathrobe, with pets sleeping in the office whilst I type. That life has seen me go all around the country and world to talk about my writing, to sign books and meet people, and to make friends that I would likely have never met if my life had gone to the plan my 22-year-old self had imagined. It’s gotten me published two dozen languages around the world, won me awards (including the Hugo, the one award that young me absolutely would have geeked out about), and, as a bonus, made me a decent amount of money to support myself and my family.
This has been a good life and career, and I’m happy to have gotten this one, out of all the possible ones I could have gotten. I think I would have been happy in the life I had planned at 22. I think I’m happier in the life I have now.
30 years of writing professionally is a long time, and it doesn’t feel like that long at all. Realistically I can hope for another twenty years of it; I wouldn’t mind getting another thirty. I’ll keep at it; honestly at this point I’m not qualified for anything else. The good news is, I still like doing my job, and doing it mostly every day.
And that’s the very best thing: To love what you do and to keep wanting to do it. I love my job, and love writing to all of you in this northwest corner of this northwest room in my little Ohio town. Thank you all for letting me have this life so far. I’ll keep at it, and look forward to what happens from here.