Caitlin Kelly is a freelance writer who has written for The New York Times, The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Glamour, Business Week, Town & Country, Family Circle and Penthouse to name a few. She is also the author of two non-fiction books: Blown Away: American Women and Gunsand her latest Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.
In this, the second part of our two-part series, I asked Caitlin to expose the reality of the writer’s life as I know many of us would like to make a livelihood from our writing passions and quit our day jobs.
Here’s her thoughtful response to my query:
Describe the “writer’s life.”
Now there’s an impossible assignment!
The simple truth is this: we’re all on a ladder. Some of us feel like we’re (perpetually) at the bottom, some stuck in the middle, all of us driven types – yes, that would be me – gazing at the top and wondering if or when we’ll ever get there.
What’s the top?
Best-sellerdom, rave reviews, prizes, fellowships, grants, movies with Julia Roberts or Anne Hathaway playing you. Very few of us will achieve those elusive, lucrative, Olympian heights, so the “writer’s life” is often wherever we are right now, and how much we’re able to enjoy it.
I started writing for a living while a college sophomore, was a reporter for three major newspapers and an editor for three national magazines. I’ve written two non-fiction books, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (Pocket Books, 2004) and “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Portfolio, 2011.)
I hope to write many more.
Here’s some of what being a writer means to me:
Being a writer means:
never feeling satisfied
being part of a large and honored nation – but one with hostile tribes
worrying about money almost all the time, no matter how many Big Name Publications are on my resume
knowing your work has made strangers laugh and cry, ditch their boyfriends and quit lousy jobs
never knowing how your work is going to be received, whether by your editor, agent, publisher or readers
feeling the fear — of rejection, of being asked to revise the manuscript again, of lousy reviews, of disappointing sales, of not winning the grant or the fellowship – and doing it anyway
finding out that two of your favorite fellow writers have all applied for the same fellowship as you – and then, when none of you win, feeling a little relieved
watching work you find execrable crap dominate the best-seller list for months
seeing people like Jon-Jon Gulian win a $750,000 advance and three mentions in The New York Times. No, I’ve never heard of him either.
shrugging it off and getting on with your own work anyway
speaking on NPR in front of a huge national audience and having a caller sneer: “Why should I read your book? It’s just….entertainment.”
spending more than the mortgage payment to buy liability insurance in case someone you write about decides to sue you
having your non-writer neighbors think you’re a celebrity
wondering who’s actually buying your books – and wanting to meet a few of them face to face and say “Thanks!”
bursting into tears of joy and relief when your very first copy of the finished book arrives
suddenly having people ask you to speak and lecture and give webinars – all without payment or even travel expenses — because they’re offering you “exposure”
learning to tell these people hoping to take unpaid advantage of your time, skill and energy — to piss off
getting extraordinarily moving emails from total strangers telling you that your work has changed, even saved, their life
that total strangers who have no idea how to write pull you, and your work, to bloody shreds on amazon.com because…they can
that libraries worldwide are acquiring your books
going into Barnes & Noble and seeing a pile of your books on the front tables – and taking a photo just to prove it really happened
spending thousands of dollars of your own money to keep your book visible, audible and in demand
putting your faith, trust and career in your agent’s hands – who may or may not deserve it
cheering for your friends who get on the “Today” show when you don’t
driving hours to give a bookstore reading and only one person shows up – and giving it your best anyway
finding people who understand and can explain the words “modified gross” in your Hollywood contract
reading other writers’ work and feeling, gnawed with awe and envy and admiration, you’ll never, ever, ever be that good
reading other writers’ work and wondering how on earth they ever got a book deal, let alone huge advances and their own imprint
your writer friends sometimes have more faith in you than you do yourself
everything, everywhere is material
having the guts and skill to actually use it in your work
having stacks of your own books on the bookshelf beside your bed
needing friends whose own creative work – whether dance, art, photography or writing – means they truly understand the financial, intellectual and emotional rollercoaster of this sort of life
means taking chances month after month, year after year: choosing your agent(s), selecting your ideas, deciding with whom and when you choose to share them (be careful!)
The writer’s life is filled with rejection, joy, panic, fatigue. It’s not easy or simple. Success is rarely quick or lucrative.
Only you can decide if it’s worth it. For me, still, it is.