I don’t put much stock in a timetable. Plenty of writers do. Head to social media after a publication unveils its “40 Best Creative Talents Under 40” or some other age-related list and behold as writers suffer emotional crises that turn your Twitter feed into a Philip Roth rough draft. A 25-year-old critically acclaimed novelist fills a worrisome lot with the urge to fill out law school applications or take up a career in cobbling.
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There are healthier ways to measure success than via self-flagellation based on the accomplishments of a few shining stars. To me, making a living as a full-time freelance writer is something to celebrate. You’ve done what many want to do, but they lack the commitment or the courage or the stamina to start fresh. Bask in not having to listen to your co-worker’s interminable rundown of last night’s The Big Bang Theory. Rejoice in the absence of office holiday parties held on December 23rd. Slam dunk all those pleated dress pants and unforgiving brown shoes in a trash bag and strut down to Goodwill.
Aside from working on your terms, you’re doing something you love. Even if the gigs aren’t emotionally satisfying, the germ of writing is present. Using that as your base, you can then determine if you – not the wunderkind who keeps appearing in The New Yorker – are on the right path.
Everyone’s measurements are different. Personally, I look for a healthy ratio of the work I want to do vs. the work I must do. If 50 percent of my assignments are done out of obligation, that’s excellent. That means half the time, I’m feeding my soul. The other assignments subsidize those passion projects, such as movie reviews and interviews, that pay less-than-desirable rates. Right now, the ratio stands at 80 “for me” and 20 “for them,” which is tremendous – but unsteady. When the days turn sour, I do what I can to make myself happy. That means having leisurely, homemade lunches in front of the TV and taking afternoon naps without feeling a tinge of guilt. Tomorrow is another day.
Time is a wonderful ally, because it breeds perspective while adding scar tissue. Persistence and sheer stubbornness succeed when speed fails. I was 29 when I ditched my full-time trade magazine job and decided to freelance. Six years later, I started writing for national publications regularly. I was 39 when I signed with my literary agent. I just landed my first book deal. I am 40 years old, well past the age of being young and trendy — but the last time I checked, writing doesn’t have an expiration date.
It took 11 years (and three stints slinging books) to reach this point. A few financial catastrophes and hundreds of rejections later, I’d rather write advertorials in my socks than have a weekend dismantled by a squawking police scanner or walk a trade show for eight hours in a stifling full suit functioning as a human crock pot. I get to eat lunch with my wife and serve as a regular presence in my daughter’s life. I’ve won even if I all I did was write white papers and ghostwrite e-books on various nutrients.
Using someone else’s as a guidepost is a lousy navigation system for your own life.
The prelude to the current chapter was long and tedious. An editor would attack the pages in red pen before burning them in a dumpster. No one should waste as much time as I did. For a healthy portion of my 20s, I voluntarily planted myself in the shadow of my younger brother, Dave, a talented comedy writer. He got an internship at MAD at 18, following that up with another at Michael Moore’s TV show, The Awful Truth. Meanwhile, I landed interviews for internships at Premiere and Entertainment Weekly – and whiffed at both. For good measure, I shrewdly declined an internship at Rolling Stone, because it interfered with my schedule of classes. By 22, Dave was an editor at MAD. At 24 years old, I was a newspaper reporter flame-out managing a sputtering used bookstore in suburban New Jersey. Each passing day I was morphing into a young failed creative stereotype. (Yes, I had a bad goatee.) Dave was also thriving socially. He rented a spacious apartment on the Upper East Side that was something out of a 90’s sitcom: funny roommates; a Golden Tee console adjacent to a bar. (All that was missing was a fire pole that dropped you into the living room and sexy female boarders across the hall.) He was living a life that could have been mine if only I had tweaked a few things. Jesus Christ, why did I turn down Rolling Stone? What if I had gotten a job in New York City?
What an exhausting, corrosive way to live.
At some point, I realized that comparing myself to Dave was a journey without a destination. We had different objectives; we were different people. I had to focus on what I wanted to do. If I continued looking to Dave to measure my personal or professional happiness – no matter how much I love and admire him – I’d permanently cast myself as the runner-up. The opportunities I’ve enjoyed in recent years would have vanished if I remained consumed with having someone else’s career.
We crave answers, whether it’s how to make the perfect apple pie or if we need to wear a jacket tomorrow. It’s easy to forget that careers aren’t things we can achieve with a trip to Google or asking Alexa. Using someone else’s as a guidepost is a lousy navigation system for your own life.
Trust yourself. It’s easy to do. Remember. Remember that feeling of writing a perfect sentence; that rush of finding the clearing and taking a piece home. Remember getting the check that pays your taxes early. Remember the pride of getting a pitch accepted or asking the right question to land that perfect quote. Those are your references points. It may not lead you to fame or six-figure book contracts or fawning magazine profiles, but it’s all yours.
And the best part: It lasts.
Pete Croatto (Twitter: @PeteCroatto) lives just outside Ithaca, New York, with his wife and daughter. He’s currently working on a basketball book for Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.