“What do you do for a living?” It was an easy question to answer when I was in the Army. “I’m a scout—Army RECON” was generally met with raised eyebrows, and accompanied by lots of oo’s and ah’s. Not so much when I began my aspirations to become an author. Instead of the usual nods of respect, people would furrow their brow and frown. “Are you published?” would tend to be the precursor to, “So…you don’t have a job?”, and when it wasn’t explicitly stated, it was heavily implicated in expressions.
I served in the US Army for 7 years. I was a scout (reconnaissance specialist). My job was to infiltrate deep behind enemy lines to find out where the opposing force was operating and to perform high-value target missions (HVT). I was specially trained to lead urban combat missions, I was an expert marksman in every weapon system I operated, and I spent two full years in combat. I also had more downtime during my days in the Army than at any job I’d held prior to that. Sure, I worked hard in the military. I got to work at 6:00 AM and wouldn’t get home until sometime between 5:00–9:00 PM; I’d spend days/weeks at a time, training in the field, or deploy to some special location for some extra high-speed training for 45 days. But…I also never had as much downtime or as many superfluous tasks as I did in the Army—sweeping parking lots, cleaning weapons all day that had previously been cleaned over the previous three days, sitting in a vehicle for no other reason than to get out of doing more mundane jobs. It wasn’t so much work as it was filling empty time with empty tasks. Being in the military is a lot like being an atom—it’s mostly empty.
Ironically, work in the military does not equate to work in the civilian world. Go ahead and try and tell someone that you worked for an hour at the gym, or that you were working when you went to the gun range, or that you were working while you were sitting in your car so no one could find you. As a writer, I do far more actual work than I did in the military. In the Army, I spent 12 hours a day at work; as a writer, I spend 12 hours a day working. Why is it that society associates work in the military as good, wholesome work, while writers seem to be viewed as lazy? It seems counterintuitive to view 12 hours spent writing as non-work, whereas 12 hours spent at a job as work. I remember how my friend’s dad would joke with me about how “hard” I worked as a writer. He was one of the most successful car mechanics in all of Angra dos Reis, Brazil, and every day he’d joke, “Hard day at work, Jim?”, and when I’d tell him, “Yeah, actually it was”, he’d laugh.
As aspiring writers, we have to deal with looks of disapproval as we explain to our spouses why we didn’t do the dishes and fold the laundry, or why we spent all day in front of the computer and only have three paragraphs to show for it. We have to deal with expressions like, “You should do something productive today” after having churned out 15,000 words the day before. We can wish that society would recognize writing as work, but let’s be honest, “I read ten chapters and wrote a scene” is a hard sell. An even harder sell is, “Sorry I didn’t change diapers, wash dishes, vacuum, cook, or shop—I had to finish writing this chapter”, and it surely doesn’t help when people see you posting on Facebook and Twitter while you’re supposedly writing. But, that’s just life as a writer. Police have to accept that their job is dangerous, librarians that they will live a quiet life, teachers that they will be underappreciated, and writers that people think they don’t work. It comes with the territory.
But, as writers, what do we about this?
I’ll be answering that question over the next few blogs. Firstly, we recognize that we are writers because we don’t want to work. According to society, at least. We have to accept that people will believe that we have no real aspirations in life. When the time comes that we have published our novel or short story, then we can hold our head up high, and with all the maturity of an adult, stick out our tongue at the naysayers. Don’t hide your passion, don’t feel ashamed that you wrote all day—BE PROUD!
I learned a huge lesson about this when I was at war in Iraq. Now, we can all agree that Dungeons & Dragons isn’t the “coolest” hobby to have. Countless D&D nerds were, and are, picked on for being gamers. I know. I was one of them. So, it was no surprise to me when I started a D&D campaign in Iraq that most of the platoon laughed and poked fun at us. Normally, nerds don’t do well with confrontation, but my friend Schuyler wasn’t your typical nerd. When they made fun of us, he looked at them as if they’d said the most ignorant, stupid crap he’d ever heard. As Schuyler treated them as if they were the losers for not liking D&D, a peculiar thing happened. The naysayers shifted on their feet the way people do whenever they’re called out, anxious to find themselves under the spotlight. Their fiery comments quickly cooled to mumbled gripes, and a few curiosities were piqued. In the end, Shuyler’s unabashed reaction to ignorance turned the tables. One soldier told him, “Damn…now I feel like the loser for not playing D&D.” It was a much-deserved win for the nerds.
I’ve worn that sentiment every day of my life, and it has served me well.
Aspiring writers, be like Schuyler!