“The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”
Charles Du Bos
I can’t find the quote now, but I remember Augusten Burroughs saying that his only regret in life was that he stayed as long as he did in the advertising job he hated. It kept him from being what he was born to be—a full-time author.
I’ve been writing for a very long time now. Things got serious when I was in college, after I placed well in this big screenwriting competition and I suddenly had a film agent. I didn’t want to call myself a writer until I was sure it would stick. I waited until I heard other people say it before I made it my own. I remember the exact moment it happened. I had gone to this advertising agency to watch a rough cut of the movie “The Abyss.” I had somehow talked my way into getting hired to write copy for the film’s trailer. I was in a room with the advertising producer and he was on the phone and I heard him say, “I’m with the writer now.” I looked around—there was no one else in the room. I realized that I was the writer. I was the writer!
What a moment. This was how I wanted to be defined, forever. A thought, an idea that I’d had in my head had actually escaped into the real world and had been accepted by others.
Of course, what I really wanted to do was direct films.
I pursued these two passions side-by-side. And, like a person who studies to be an actor, I took expendable employment. Flexibility was important. I did not pursue a career other than writing and filmmaking. Which meant that I had a lot of jobs I actually hated. They were merely jobs, not passions. In the meantime, life happened. I fell in love, got married, had kids. And the “expendable” jobs became what others might call “careers.” They became the kind of jobs that others fight to get. But they weren’t the careers of my choosing. They were only supposed to be links in a chain. Disposable.
If I had chosen a career outside of writing and filmmaking, I might have chosen law. Maybe environmental law. Or I would have worked for Greenpeace or the Sea Shepherds. Teaching seemed like a great idea, and yet teaching was something I always figured I’d do later, after I learned something worthwhile to pass along. It was a “later in life” goal. For, like, when I’m older, like…in my forties.
I look around at many of the authors on Murderati and I see people who had valuable careers either before they became full-time authors or in conjunction with their writing careers. I guess if you intend to be an author you figure you better have a job you love, because it will be a long time before you’re living off your writing. But when you go to film school you think that every shitty screenplay you write is going to make a million bucks. So, you’re always just a few months from living the dream. And the jobs you take in-between end up as “filler work.”
On Murderati I see people who love that other thing they do for a living. Dusty seems passionate about his work in law. I don’t get the sense that he’s waiting for an opportunity to leave his “day job.” Tess is a doctor and, although she might not be practicing anymore, she chose a noble profession to pursue before becoming a full-time author. We have business-owner authors here, photographer authors, active-mom authors. What I see here are people who are themselves one hundred percent of the time. 24/7.
When you have a day job, and it’s not what you’re made of, what you live is a lie. You compartmentalize yourself to death.
The times I’m a full-time writer are the times I’m a fully realized participant in this wonderful thing called LIFE. Those times I am 24-hour Schwartz.
For the most part, however, I’ve let these day jobs define me. Ninety-five percent of the writing I’ve done has occurred in the evenings and weekends, after the nine-to-five of whatever job I’ve got to keep food on the table. I wrote ten screenplays this way. I wrote Boulevard this way. I wrote Beat this way.
Even when I worked for Wolfgang Petersen, an exciting, high-profile job as his Director of Development, I still considered it a day job. Especially so, since I didn’t even have time to write evenings and weekends. It was 24/7 D-guy work. I had to leave the job just so I could find myself. Find the writer.
After I left the film business, I worked my way up to a steady, well-paying sales job that had nothing to do with writing. I continued to compartmentalize my life, being one person forty hours a week and another on evenings and weekends. And the resentments I’ve had over making this compromise has led to addictive behavior and, at times, depression. For the “me” I had given up, I felt entitled to certain compensations. I used the money I made to buy the things I thought I deserved—a home I couldn’t afford, a car I couldn’t afford, family vacations. Consolation prizes.
Maybe subconsciously I wanted to fail. Maybe I didn’t want the personal possessions to own me. Gradually, things reached a boiling point, with the economic crisis, with the outrageous loan on my house. And now that the house is slipping away, I see an opportunity.
I mean, is there anything really keeping me in Los Angeles? My kids are home schooled, so we’re pretty much mobile, without too many strings attached. No house, no complicated school entanglements.
Still, there’s that pesky day job.
I’ve had so many mature, responsible business associates tell me that I’d be a fool to leave it behind. “Just stick it out, until that movie deal comes around.” Guess what? I’ve been waiting for that movie deal for twenty-five years. That movie deal…sure, it might come. But I’m done waiting for it.
I remember when I was making around thirty-thousand dollars a year and I asked a friend if he thought it was wise for my wife and I to try to have a baby. I was worried that I wasn’t financially ready. “If you wait until you’re ready you won’t ever have children. You’ll never have enough money, you’ll never be prepared. But if you do it, you’ll find a way, and then you’ll realize that you had enough to make it work.”
I didn’t have enough money, but we had our first little boy. And we made it work. And I ended up making more money, just enough to take care of the one boy. So we decided to have another.
I’m looking at my job the same way. If I’m not Stephen Jay Schwartz 24/7 then I’m dying. If I can’t support my family as a writer, then I have to shed the overhead, and simplify my life. And if I still need a day job, I’ll find something that speaks to my heart.
Thankfully, my wife and kids are behind me. In fact, they’re pushing me to make a change. The scariest thing is the not-knowing. Where will we be in three months? Eureka, California is looking pretty good. There’s an ocean close by. It looks affordable. I could do some farming, maybe. You know, Humboldt County and all. And there’s a university close by. Maybe it’s time to explore that teaching thing.
Or I could wait for the film deal to come through…
PS – I’ll be on a panel at the L.A. Times Festival of Books at UCLA tomorrow (Saturday) called “Dark Tales from the Golden State” at 3:00 pm in Dodd Hall. I’ll also be signing from 12-1 tomorrow at the Mystery Bookstore booth (#411), and on Sunday I’ll be signing from 11-12 at the Book Soup booth (#330) and at the Mysterious Galaxy booth (#614) from 1-2. Come by and say hello if you’re in town!