I have been a professional writer now for 31 years, ever since I was a college senior.
That's a number that astonishes me. But the number that really astounds me is that, strictly speaking, I've been unemployed for all but about a dozen of those years.
Who would have thought that not having a job would be the most lucrative and secure career path I could have chosen? Thanks to the digital revolution, even writing has become a business that rewards the entrepreneurial while often punishing those hoping for a safe and secure job.
I was reminded of that today when I got an e-mail announcing a reunion of former San Jose Mercury-News employees. The Merc, as you remember, was recently sold -- twice -- after all but decapitating itself, offering early retirement to its most veteran journalists. That would have included me, if I hadn't quit the paper 25 years ago.
I remember vividly my feeling of utter terror the day I walked out. I had no job prospects, no money, and no place to live (at least not that I could afford). I also remember my fellow reporters commiserating with me, wondering how I would survive the hand-to-mouth existence of freelance writer, and generally assuming that I'd end up as yet another PR person, a hack turned flack.
And I did write my share of press releases in the years that followed. But I also learned how to make use of the latest technological tools to survive in a rapidly changing profession. Many of my peers never did -- which is why, jobless, I've probably enjoyed more career security than most of them. Even now, many still cling to jobs in dying newspapers in the hope that even if the paper doesn't turn around, they can at least hang on until retirement. It must be a helluva way to close out a long career.
If the Merc invitation has made me nostalgic, another milestone last week has made me positively autumnal: I finished my new book.
Completing a book always induces a certain amount of depression You start out full of high hopes for riches and fame, and by about page 300 you both hate the book, doubt your own ability, and predict the work will be both a critical and financial failure. Your children will starve, you will lose the house, and no publisher will ever touch you again. When you type that last period it is hard to feel anything at all beyond the resigned weariness of someone climbing a mountain who unexpectedly finds the path ahead level … and realizes he has reached the summit.
This time, as usual, there were no trumpet fanfares or singing cherubim. I finished the manuscript, hit the "save" button on my laptop, played a game of computer solitaire, and went to bed. It was 2 a.m.
I got up at 7 a.m. to take my 15-year-old and the girl next door to high school, then returned home to take my 10-year-old to elementary school. At some point in all of this, I mentioned that I had finished the book. "That's great, Dad," said my kids and turned up the car radio. "Oh good," said my wife when I got home and told her. "Let's get out the contract and see when you get paid next."
Thirty one years ago, I used to have -- like most budding writers -- romantic illusions about a life of letters. I dreamed of creating prose so deathless that it would be instantly labeled a "classic," that it would make people weep with its power, and that strangers would stop me on the street to shake my hand and thank me for my work.