Over the next couple of weeks, I am doing a short series called “The Secret Lives of Writers.” In several blog posts and in interactions through social media, I will be exploring what it means to identify as a writer, and why many, many people who write never do. Whether or not you are a writer, I hope this series will inspire you to consider your own ways of identifying yourself and how those identities shape your life and actions.
One of the best kept secrets of the writing life continues to elude most wanna-be writers. But here it is in black and white: most writers do other work in addition to writing.
So many of us remain secret writers because we are waiting for the day we can announce to the world that now we will just be writing. It’s a wonderful goal, and it is possible to make a living at writing. But being a full-time writer and doing nothing else is something few of us will ever have the luxury of—or the interest in—doing. Just consider a few of our favorite “big time” writers.
Several of them famously kept their careers outside of writing even as they grew in literary stature: Virginia Woolf ran a publishing house with her husband, Leonard Woolf; Lewis Caroll continued to be a mathematician; Franz Kafka worked at an insurance company; Wendell Berry returned to farming; Philip Gulley shepherds a flock as a pastor.
Others engage in work that supports the writing. They write best sellers plus they earn speaking fees or hold professorships at universities. Zadie Smith is a professor of fiction at New York University; Sylvia Day is a frequent workshop presenter and keynote speaker for writing programs.
At the very least, most writers engage in other activities to help sell their books and movies, like appearing on television or engaging with social media. I recently saw best-selling author James Patterson on the Today Show talking about his latest Alex Cross thriller and his new children’s book, House of Robots. Publicity is not one of his favorite things, he confessed to the hosts, yet there he was. Young adult author John Green continues to record his Vlog Brothers Youtube videos with his brother Hank (which does seem to be one of Green’s favorite things). And Stephen King makes cameo appearances in films adapted from his books.
Still other writers turn their attention to other causes in addition to their writing. David Baldacci started and works with the Wish You Well Foundation® to support adult literacy, and John Grisham serves as a local Little League Commissioner.
If full-time writers doing nothing else but writing are the only ones who can call themselves writers, then there are really very few writers in the world.
At the same time, don’t think you have to make it “big” as a writer before you can start sharing the secret. Lots of people are stepping out and letting the world know they are writers, even if writing is not—and maybe never will be—their primary work.
In fact, several well-known celebrities do a little writing on the side and apparently have started telling people. Actors Kristen Stewart, Suzanne Somers, James Franco, and Amber Tamblyn all write poetry. Stand-up comedian B.J. Novak, best known as an actor, writer, and executive producer of The Office, also is an essayist and recently published a children’s book. Radio host Garrison Keillor of This American Life writes poetry and novels. Actor, producer, and director Tom Hanks recently had a short story published in The New Yorker.
Whether you are an accountant who wants to write romance novels on the side, or you have your sights set on being the next Stephen King, don’t be just another best kept secret.
Tell someone today.
LET’S DISCUSS: Do you resist calling yourself a writer because you also do other things? Does it help you to know that most writers do other work besides writing? Who is your favorite writer? What else does he do besides pen novels or craft essay?
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