That’s how long I’ve been writing professionally. And by professionally, I mean “writing full-time, and earning my living by writing alone.” Since January 1999 I’ve earned my keep as a writer without holding down a “day job” at the same time.
Thirteen years is a long time. In human terms, it’d be mouthing off to me and calling me an asshole while they sneak out to smoke cigarettes and listen to crappy music.
But it’s not a person; it’s a passage of time, and it still boggles my mind that I’ve managed to earn a living at it.
This means one of two things: I’m either incredibly lucky or incredibly stupid.
On the stupid side:
I don’t get to take vacations. Even when I’m on vacation, work is there.
I have to pay for my own health coverage, dental, retirement fund etc. Factor that into a year where you barely break even before those costs.
I always take a hit at tax time, unlike those who have taxes deducted from their regular paychecks. Good year or mediocre year or bad year, out comes the checkbook.
I don’t get regular paychecks. Annual pay fluctuates wildly, but generally you have a very good year, followed by two to three lousy ones, which evens out the good year and plays havoc on any retirement savings or investments.
On the lucky side:
I haven’t had to be up at a specific time to commute to a job where I’m required to work at an assigned task for an assigned number of hours, since late 1998. That’s right; most days I’m still in my pajamas three hours after you started work.
I work my own hours, at my own pace, on my own schedule. If I want to go see a movie, or play video games, or read comic books, I can do that whenever I feel, because it’s all technically part of work anyway.
Flexibility of schedule gives me freedom to actually live my life while I work. It also affords me opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise. Were it not for that flexible schedule there’s no way I ever would have met my wife.
I get to earn a living doing what I’ve wanted to do since I was seven. Top that.
I am actually working in the profession I studied at University. Top that too.
So yeah, despite the hassles that come with the job, I love what I do. I will never do anything else. I don’t aspire to direct movies like a lot of screenwriters, because the writing part of movie making is, for me, the most enjoyable (and frankly there are far too many mediocre writer-directors out there). Plus, I hate waking up early and call-times on movie sets are in the 7:00 am range.
But every year around this time (i.e. Tax Season) I always seem to stop and take stock of how far I’ve come. I remember the first time I got to list “writer” as my occupation on my Tax return – it was both awe-inspiring and frightening. Awe-inspiring, because I had made it, and at a relatively young age too ( like, within three years of graduating).
Frightening, because I always worried if this was it – that things will collapse or go downhill and I’ll be forced to slink back to an office job after a brief moment in the sun. Hell, it could still happen, and what’s frightening about that is it’s been so long since I worked an office job I’m pretty much unemployable.
My first year as a pro was, until recently, my best financially. In that year my income tripled from the year previous, I was able to pay off my remaining student loans, register as a business, get a bigger apartment, get an agent and a manager, and be what I’d wanted to be since kindergarten … amazing.
The following year I earned half the amount of the year previous. The year following was worse. The year after that was great. Things picked up and while there were other dips and rises, I figured “hey, it’s just a like a roller coaster so I might as well enjoy the ride”. It’s still a rollercoaster, but over the years I’ve figured out how to weather the ride.
First; keep moving. Be like a shark, always on the prowl. Don’t take a moment to rest on your laurels. A break here and there is okay, but don’t let it run for too long. I’m talking a week at most.
Second; keep seeking inspiration. Get away for the weekend or a week, take in some new surroundings and stimulate your creative centers. I capped off a very busy 2011 with a week in Paris, and found myself rejuvenated on returning home. You don’t have to go that far — Philly is fine.
Three; avoid self-reflection. Avoid taking yourself too seriously. Don’t spend weeks retooling an old project. Finish it, send it out the door, and move onto something new. Otherwise you sink into stagnation, and that’s creative death.
Still, that feeling, that it’s all going to end, that the work’s going to dry up, that I’m going to find myself back in the same dead-end job I was in before, never really goes away. I’ve come to see it as extra motivation to keep pushing hard at work; to keep busy, to keep working on a variety of projects across a range of mediums.
I’ve got a movie coming out later this year, and am going into production on another. There’s also the matter of a top secret project I’m in the early stages of, with someone I’ve wanted to work with for nearly twenty years. There’s also MIXTAPE, of course, which is the first genuine passion project I’ve had to see the light of day.
But with each year that goes by, and each time I list writer (and since moving to the US – “Independent Artist”) as my occupation on my taxes, I realize; it is what I do. It is who I am, and I won’t stop doing it until the pen is pried from my cold dead hand.