Monday, February 27, 2012

Reflections from the Well

On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration

by Alexander Slagg

Living the Dream

Many of us harbor fantasies of living the lives of our artistic inspirations. Living lives of quiet, modest struggle, dedicated to our craft, until one day the world discovers our work and we rise into the sky a blazing comet of significance. It’s a story that’s inspired many people. But how long do you hold out for the moment of liftoff? Is that archetypal journey even realistic? Maybe it’s better to chart your own course, wherever it may lead. You may be pleasantly surprised where you end up.

I was a writer before I became an editor. I spent many open-ended afternoons and late nights sequestered in my dingy off-campus rental room, typing and picking away on stories, poetry, songs. After I graduated from college, I did much of the same. The afternoon fog would roll in and break across the city while I worked and occasionally put together a publishing query. Soon enough it was time to make myself presentable and hop on the Fulton #5 bus to my evening job at the restaurant.

At some point along the way I recognized I was adrift. I began to question where this free-form approach to establishing a writing career was getting me. I had a few published pieces occupying a small space on my bookshelf – meager results compared to dozens of rejection letters stuffed into my deluxe edition of Writer’s Market on the shelf below. I needed to rethink this whole thing.

I applied to writing programs, but was rejected. And really, I saw little to gain by digging myself into a pit of debt only to receive a degree whose primary value was to qualify me to be a writing instructor of some sort. I didn’t want to teach others to write; I simply wanted to write.

But I felt the need to bring some form of practicality to this pursuit, a plan. I also needed to make a living, get some health insurance, maybe put money away for the distant future. I hit upon the idea of becoming an editor.

As an editor, I’d be working in an area of interest, involved in something that I was passionate about. And I could get inside the machine, the world of book publishing, and learn how it works from the inside. The idea of mailing off a poor defenseless manuscript into its black maw would seem less frightening. Maybe some day my insider knowledge would be there to smoothly guide me through a foreign rights contract or some other authorial rough patch.

So I started taking community college courses, anything I could find that related to editing or proofreading or writing. And soon enough I was hired as an editorial assistant for a small publisher. I worked on New York Times bestsellers and complete flops. I learned the business. I supported a growing family, and I continued to write. It felt like the best of all worlds.

Sooner or later, many of us reach what feels like a fork in the road: Do I pursue my dream or give it up. Only it’s not really a fork. It’s one more decision on a bigger journey that encompasses your dream and so much more. There’s room for that dream and whatever else you need in your life. The question is, do you have a broad enough imagination that can envision this wider world? If you’re reading this column, you probably do.

Share your comments with Alex for possible inclusion on the LWN blog or in his next reflection at