I pitched my new book to agents at the writer’s conference today. Two of them want to see chapters, and one wants to see the full manuscript. I hope the words on paper will live up to the words that came out of my mouth. I’ve only been writing like a maniac for a few years. I’ve improvised, cajoled, and spouted bullshit on a professional level for a lot longer than that.

Even though agents have asked me for chapters before, this makes me nervous. Yeah, I should be ecstatic, and a sliver of my consciousness is partying like Keith Richards on the day they legalize smack. But most of me is fixating on the gulf between the writer I am now and the writer I want to be. I refer to writing skill. I refer not to the glamorous lifestyle of a professional writer.

My sister is an artist of fabulous skill and determination. She once traveled to another city in which a gallery was showing her work. She said it was like being a rock star. People drove her around town, took her to eat, effused about her work, and generally worshipped her. It was an amazing week. The day she returned home she had to scrape dried peanut butter off the kitchen floor.

It puts things in perspective.

I wonder if I waited too late to get aggressive about writing. It takes time to get good at things. I’m a better actor now than I was 20 years ago. It’s not like I’m John Barrymore or anything now, but it’s relative. The universe of things I don’t know about writing stuns me when I can stand to think about it. Actually, I think about it a lot. My brain won’t stop thinking about writing.

Bad brain. Off the couch.

It’s almost time for tonight’s party here at the conference. I’m certain most of the writers, agents and editors will be there. How do I know this?

Open bar.

Free gin and tonics. That’s the glamorous lifestyle of a writer for you.

Definitely not John Barrymore
Definitely not John Barrymore

Photo by Ariana Berdy

My creative life sometimes feels like a grapevine struggling in a field of turnips. Creativity does not pay my bills. Einstein said, “Science is a wonderful thing as long as one does not have to earn one’s living at it.” So it also can be with creativity. I’m a writer, and I’m also an actor. Therefore I am doubly cursed. For every Julia Roberts or Larry McMurtry, legions wade through community theater and rejection letters at night, while they write code, pour concrete, and answer phones for assholes during the day.

I made a decision years ago, and I can’t recall the moment I made it. Maybe I didn’t realize I was making it. Maybe I got sucked along, like when your wife suggests you go to the arboretum, but you say nothing. The next thing you know, you’re looking at a bunch of damned orchids. At some point I decided that my creative life would be my shadow life. It would be my hobby. My vocation and obligations would lie elsewhere, largely wrapped up in security. I would love my shadow life more, but it would always be a mistress to my day job.

That’s the decision I made, and I’m okay with it. I occasionally find ways to exercise creativity in my “real” job. I create spreadsheets with breathtakingly lovely color schemes. I can make people laugh while telling them things they don’t want to hear. But I find “real world” creative opportunities to be rare.

Maybe I’m deciding something different about my creative life now. That’s a pending question. One reason it’s pending is that I have a friend who years ago embraced the artist’s life in an overwhelming way. She has never deviated from her purpose. She’s almost never had a  “day” job. And she’s achieved a lot of critical success. Financial success is always more elusive of course. That must have been true even for the guy mashing pictures of bison onto the cave wall with his fingers.

My friend’s commitment cost her something. Spouses, children, and friends all had to compete with her creative myopia, and sometimes they lost. When they lost, sometimes they suffered, and so did she.

I don’t believe that all creative people suffer from mental and emotional challenges, but I know that my friend and I do. Treatment helps, but it also hampers her creativity just a bit. That creative handicap would be invisible to most people. To an artist it’s like a championship sprinter losing two-hundredths of a second. It’s huge. Treatment’s unacceptable for her, but an untreated life is a vista of misery, punctuated by peaks of elation.

And yet, this is the payment she’s been willing to make, and I’m not going to tell her she’s wrong. She embraced the creative life. For her, it comes at a high price, but she’s paid it and never considered doing otherwise.

So, I see that this post has turned into an almost complete pit of negativity. I’ll finish by saying that I have no answers for anyone else regarding vocation vs. hobby for their creative lives. I don’t have any answers for myself right now either. But I will say that this time I’m damned if I end up looking at orchids without knowing how I got there.