My first decade out of college I worked 60 to 90 hour weeks in high tech with predominantly white males (until I had my own team and could change that). Competition was fierce. Everyone wanted their share, and no one hesitated to poke an eye out for it. It was commission based– the harder I worked, the more money I made– and that quickly became the foundation on which I rested my self-worth. Lives weren’t at stake, but lifestyles were, and as I’ve confessed before, that mattered to me a great deal. It was only when I attended conferences that I truly felt like a fraud; I understood so little about the guts behind what was sold. Don’t misinterpret that, I wasn’t selling cars with falsified odometers. I knew the engineers I worked with were geniuses and my customers were happy, but I wasn’t passionate or knowledgable about the industry in general. During conferences, I’d stand at a booth under fluorescent lighting from 8 in the morning to 8 at night, breaking only for a soggy caesar salad at lunch. After 3 days of torture, I sounded like I smoked two packs a day, my skin was ashen from complete vitamin D depravation, and I wanted to scream at people who stopped to ask questions: “I DON’T CARE WHAT THE HELL YOU BUY, JUST FLY HOME ALREADY SO I CAN TOO.”
But then the quarter would end and my check would come and I’d allow its size to quiet the voice questioning whether this was the path I was meant to be on. I was living my father’s life. I loved my father, but had I taken my intent to emulate him too literally? My paycheck assured me I did not.
I’ve been a full-time writer for three years. My agent, publicist, and editor are all women, as are all of my new, supportive writer friends. My husband notwithstanding, it’s women who bring out the best in me. My propensity to compete simmers down. I relax. In publishing, people are in general agreement that reading is good, so praise for well-crafted work abounds. If I get 5 hours a day on my novel it’s a W. I can no longer pay my bills during boring conference calls (essentially being paid while paying others), nor do I have a nanny managing pick-up and drop-off, doing laundry, and buying groceries. These things suck up enormous amounts of time, but even if there were more than 24 hours in a day, I’m learning I wouldn’t spend the extra time writing. It can’t be forced– more hours no longer equates to more pay. I’m so compelled by the work it takes a physical toll; I need time away from the project to recharge. My self-worth has been completely redefined. It had to be; if I kept it based on income I’d be suicidal. You don’t go into writing for money. You go into writing because you have stories to tell.
I no longer dread attending conferences. I’ve been upgraded from a fraud to a wannabe. I look at the keynote speakers with total adoration: these are the ones who have climbed the steep learning curve of this unique industry’s mountain. The food is still soggy caesar salad (is anyone working on this issue?!?), but now I get to eat it outside, or wherever I see interesting humans. I can plop down at a table and be welcomed. I’ve discovered most writers will help your career if they like your work and are in a position to do so. Those that aren’t will commit to sending positive energy, which I swear they actually do because I sense a full community behind me that wasn’t there before.
At the end of the quarter, no check comes, but my lifestyle hasn’t suffered. Quite the opposite. I might be wearing TJ Maxx, but I’m the happiest girl in town.