Sunday, May 31, 2009

I Yam What I Yam

I used to answer Godzilla's fan mail.

It was my first job, and I wasn't hired to answer Godzilla's fan mail, I just kind of fell into it. I was actually hired as an editorial assistant at a children's books publisher. We published books for the school library market. One of the series was based on classic monster movies, including Godzilla. I don't know why, so don't ask. They were already doing them when I got there, so it wasn't my fault.

My first week on the job, someone handed me a stack of mail that had been sitting around for about six months unanswered. It turned out to be letters from kids, a surprising number of which were addressed to Godzilla. I don't even want to think about why so many children believed Godzilla actually existed and could read, but they did.

My inclination was to throw the letters away. But I was bored, and so I answered them. Mostly I wrote things like, "Thanks for the letter. Things are really busy here on Monster Island, but I wanted to say hi. Love, Godzilla." Every so often, when a kid wrote a really effusive letter praising Godzilla's fiery breath or whatever, I wrote something more. "Sure, I'll be happy to destroy Chicago! See you in June!"

This went on until my boss, asking me what I was doing, read one of the letters. Fearing a lawsuit over copyright infringement, he told me to stop. I was disappointed, as I then had to start writing catalog copy, which was far less interesting.

And so began my writing career. I suppose it could be argued that it actually began years before, when I wrote some awful stories for school, but I don't count that because I didn't want to be a writer then. I wanted to be an astronaut. Or one of Charlie's angels. I didn't really think about books, or at least about the people who wrote them. I assumed they just appeared on bookstore shelves, like milk in the grocery store.

I went right on not thinking about being a writer until the day I was called into the office of my new boss (the company had recently been sold) and was told that I could either move to New Jersey to work in the new office or I could be let go. On the cab ride home, I thought about what I was going to do next, and realized I had no idea. I'd been at the company for five years. By then I was an editor, in charge of my own line of books. And I hated it. Even worse, I wasn't good at it. I didn't care about budgets and approving covers and all of that. Most of all I didn't like fixing someone else's bad writing.

But I liked writing my own stuff. I'd even published a book, one of the first books for teenagers to address the AIDS crisis. It had received a lot of attention and excellent reviews. I had offers to do more books, and now I decided to take them.

(All right, at that point I'd published two books. The first one was a biography of Paul Abdul. Now you know and we will never speak of it again.)

That was almost twenty years ago. I still sometimes sit around thinking about what I'm going to do with my life, and when I have to put my occupation on forms I inevitably think about Shirley Jackson, who when she was registering at the hospital to deliver her third child put writer on the admission form and watched helplessly as the nurse changed it to housewife. I always wait for the receptionist or IRS or mortgage broker to look at the form, giggle, and say, "No, really, what do you do?"

But a writer I am, whether I like it or not. And often I don't.

"Are you crazy? I'd kill to write full time." I know you would. A lot of people would, and all of them tell me so. Well, I'd like to be George Clooney, but I'm sure it's not all it's cracked up to be. And please don't get me wrong; I'm thankful that I can do this and more or less make a living at it. It's the more or less part that's a problem. See, something like only 2% of writers actually make a living at it. Most of us have other jobs, or trust funds, or rich partners. That 2% either write bestsellers or burn their books to keep warm.

Objectively, I've enjoyed a lot of success. My books routinely get positive reviews, they sell well (if not at Stephen King levels), and I receive a lot of mail from readers telling me how much they love my work. The reality, however, is that I'm more in the bottom half of that 2% than I am in the top half. And that makes thinking about the future a little tough. As my partner reminded me when I decided I wanted to play rugby last year, "You're just one broken arm away from the poor house."

I'm also getting older. I know, 40 isn't old old, but it's not young, either. When I started writing I told myself that I had 30 or so years to make it big and have enough money to retire on. Then 30 came and went, and those 30 years turned into 20. Now they're flying by like mile marker signs on a freeway.

Every year or so I receive a letter from the Social Security Administration letting me know what my benefits will be when I retire. My last one showed that I will receive approximately $238 a month based on my contributions. So money is a big deal around here, and it gets bigger as the years pass. I have writer friends who are in their 60s and 70s and still writing and publishing, but for the most part life is hard for them. They can never retire. Although I don't think any of them would say they regret having chosen to be writers, I think all of them would agree that business school might have made things easier. The life of the mind doesn't pay nearly as well as the life of advertising or import/export.

But I have faith. One of these days the Big One will come come along. And if it doesn't, I hear Mothra is looking for a personal assistant.


Angela said...

"Straight Up Now Tell Me" was the second pop song I learned, from an older boy I had a crush on. The first was "Material Girl," which my cousin Jane taught me. Jane is getting married this August, and is the reason I will be traveling to the bay area and hopefully seeing your broke self.

Sandra said...

OMG. That was you?! I waited sooo long for Godzilla to destroy Chicago. *crushed* So long.