Writing as Work

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]

With the Writers’ Guild strike going on, there’s been some interesting talk about this “writing” thing as a job. You may have already seen Joss Whedon’s excellent post in response to a New York Times article about the strike; if not, go read it now, because Joss Whedon is very good at being funny and right at the same time.

Why is it so hard to believe writing is work?

When you get right down to it, we shouldn’t be surprised when people question this “job” we “work” at and “deserve” payment for. I can list four major reasons why they doubt us:

1) You don’t have a boss. I mean, you kind of do — after all, you have an editor. But that isn’t the same thing. The editor doesn’t drop a folder on your desk and say, “I need this presentation together/account restructured/code compiled by Thursday.” Nobody hauls you on the carpet to yell at you. You can’t even really be fired. They can decide not to buy your next book, but “pink slip” isn’t in a writer’s vocabulary. (For the day job, maybe.) There isn’t somebody breathing down your neck every day, making sure you’re getting your work done . . . except for you. You are your own boss. And that’s pretty suspect, when you get right down to it.

2) You don’t work regular hours. Could be you’re one of those writers who says “I will write from five a.m. to seven a.m. every morning” and sticks to it — but if so, you’re in the minority. Most of us write when we have the time, the energy, the brilliant idea. We can’t afford to wait for the brilliant idea, but if it hits at 1 a.m. then, well, put on another pot of coffee. I mean, this, right now? Is me working. It’s ten to eleven on a Thursday night, and I’m drafting this while it’s fresh in my head, because if I wait for my actual blogging day to roll around I’ll have forgotten what I want to say. We work when we can — whenever that may be.

3) You don’t have an office. Not a real one. Not a room in another building, where you have to dress up nice and share a coffeepot with other people. Heck, you may do your job on the couch, curled up in bed, at Starbuck’s. What kind of job can be done at an overpriced coffee shop? You aren’t behind the counter, buddy. Me, I have an office. It’s down the hall from my bedroom, and decorated with extremely colorful fantasy art. I can go to work in my pajamas (and often do). Clearly: not work.

4) It’s fun. And if you’re an American, your country was founded by Puritans, who knew very well that anything fun was Not Work (except maybe the Work of the Devil).

But of course we know writing is work. The hours may not be regular, but they’re long. I write about a thousand words in an hour when things are going smoothly, which means it would take me about three standard forty-hour work weeks to write a 120K novel . . . but of course it isn’t all about putting the words on the page, is it? I could not begin to estimate how many hours I spend researching, tweaking, staring at the wall and thinking. Mostly because I’m not just staring at the wall; I’m thinking about my book while I drive. While I shower. While I eat meals. While I try to go to sleep. When I’m into the guts of the thing, I’m rarely not thinking about it. (Let’s not even talk about the hours put into revision, copy-editing, proofing, and all the other tasks of getting the book to the shelves.)

And writing is a skill-set that must be built and polished, just as much as if I were a carpenter instead. If it weren’t work, would we have to practice so much? If I’m not actually a skilled craftswoman, then surely somebody else could step in and do my job, right? Er, no. In fact, I’m much less disposable than people in a lot of other recognized jobs out there. You can train somebody else to flip burgers pretty quickly. Yet we’ve reached a point in American culture where workers are all too often treated like interchangeable parts, and what they do has to be mindless to be real.

Writing produces a recognizable product. That product has value. And creating it is work. It may not happen the way “normal” jobs do, it may even be fun — but folks, it is work. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.