When I was a tech entrepreneur, I had a boss who liked to say, about working for his web-based startup company, that you got out of it what you put into it.
Yeah. I know. But I fell for it.
I loved this guy, he was brilliant, a straight-edge former body builder who abstained from drinking and drugs and, more amazingly for someone his age, social media. A punk musician and programmer, I spent a year with him, and three other guys and his tough-talking, exquisitely beautiful girlfriend from the wrong side of the tracks. We worked together on something; he worked harder than everyone else put together, of course, as it was His Thing, his Company, his Vision.
This thing that never went anywhere.
I made stuff for him, though which I still have, logos and branding and photos and copy and screens, and a business plan. I learned a lot, even if mostly what I learned is that Business is Hard, and failure is always an option. We fell out, and he’s off somewhere now, making iPhone apps, I think, was the last I heard, chasing the dream, still.
As long as you never quit, you never lose. Well. I guess eventually you die, one way or the other, and there’s some kind of reckoning.
Which brings me back to writing, and my present.
We live in a culture that measures everything with money. When people ask you what you do, it is understood, that that person is asking how you make a living. She’s not asking about church or volunteer work or your silly little hobbies. Because, quite frankly, as far as the culture is concerned, that’s all bullshit. Money talks. That bullshit walks. (That bullshit can’t even afford public transit.)
If you ever meet a man or woman of means, someone who doesn’t have to work, and ask them this question, you’ll get a job-like reply . People with money do things, frequently things that could pay enough to earn a living, and so, they say that, skipping over the ‘how I make my money’ part of the question, as if by asking what they did, you really wanted to hear what they do.
If you ask a stay at home parent, especially if he’s a man, he’ll generally tell you what he used to do, or now does part time while he spends the lion’s share of his time taking care of his kids. Nobody says, “I spend most of my time doing laundry, shopping, cooking, cleaning and teaching and farting around with and driving with my kids. I bill a few hours a week too.”
They say, instead, “I’m a freelance writer.” Or editor. Or designer. Or whatever.
In my workshops, I can sometimes feel the resentment radiating from the folks I write with who have to work full time, soul-devouring jobs to support their families. I tell them what I’m doing and they say, “Must be nice.”
And it is. It is nice. It’s also hell.
Because that culture, the one we live in, the one that made us, the one that surrounds us, is inside us too, judging us and measuring us and whispering in our ear, always, ‘how much money are you making at this? For how much time? Gee. Why don’t you collect cans on the street instead?’
Even for those enjoying the free lunch, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
I have my shield, now, my armor, given to me by Sheila Williams, the editor of Asimov’s SF magazine, and Gordon Van Gelder, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Warren Lapine, editor of Fantastic Stories. My last eight professional fiction sales. But this is a relatively new thing, and I don’t know exactly what to do with it. I wave it around a lot , the three issues of Asimov’s.
I’m a science fiction writer. Really.
Writer Jay asks Employer Jay, sometimes, what the hell he thinks he’s doing. (Hint: he is not making regular 401k contributions.) Employer Jay smiles, and says…
You get out of it what you put into it.
Our lives are hopelessly confused baskets of apples and oranges with no straightforward way to convert one thing into another, no simply logical way to organize our fleeting time and precious energies. I want to tell you how much I made writing last year, and I don’t want to, because it isn’t professional; the amount I made and the act of telling it to you, both. I want to be professional. I know that writing is both more than a profession for me, and, alas, at the moment, less. I’ve told you that writing is a source of meaning, and I stand by that.
But I look forward to a time, when I can answer this question, in all senses of the word, without caveat or explanation.
I’m a writer, I’ll say. And I’ll mean it.
Now, back to work, imaging this into reality.
No one can tell you lose, if you never stop playing.