How to Grow a Writing Career

Casual dressed man sitting at wooden desk inside garden working on computer pointing with colour pen drinking coffee gadgets
Casual dressed man sitting at wooden desk inside garden working on computer pointing with colour pen drinking coffee gadgets dropped around on table side view

Writing careers are not like many other careers, where there is at least the appearance of order and predictability. For the nurse, the lawyer, the software engineer there are degrees to earn, résumés to write, and finally companies to be employed by, where a ladder of sorts can be climbed to more money, more responsibility, a better office, and perhaps a prestigious title. There is something so reassuringly tangible about a company that existed before you were employed there, a garden already planted in which you need only do your small part to grow with it.

Of course writers have their own ladders they dream of climbing, the tippy-top of which many a quiet hour is spent imagining. There at the higher rungs are the bigger advances, the higher Amazon rankings, the prestigious awards. But unlike in a company, the way up that ladder is not so clear. On the one hand, the answer is always the same: sell more books! On the other hand, the books you want to sell more of -- yours -- have never been written before. Your career is your own garden, and while it may resemble others, its originality is as inescapable as your page is blank.

This reality can be daunting to the beginning author. Punching a time clock may not be an inspiring start to the workday, but you know every minute translates to dollars in your pocket. There is no such certainty for the writer. Or, I should say, the certainty is found elsewhere. It is found where few are taught to look for it, where, in fact, we are often taught it simply doesn't exist.

Ironically, every writer who has ever finished a single scene, whether it was published or not, knows exactly where to find the certainty they often spend many idle hours fretting will never be theirs. We do not start a scene knowing every single thing that's going to be done and said in it. Maybe we know where it will begin and how it will (probably) end. The rest we'll just figure out. The rest we'll let come to us. The rest we'll imagine, we'll hear, we'll discover. That's the fun of writing.

A writer cannot see the last sentence of a scene before it is written, anymore than he or she can see tomorrow before it is lived, but once you've written a few scenes, you don't worry much about how you'll get to the end of a scene when you start it. You may worry about your book if you've never finished one, but for those shorter sprints, you've learned to trust that all the necessary but undiscovered details will come. They always do. Every time.

The only difference between a scene and a career is the illusion of time, that vast unmapped distance between a dream and a reality. The details of which a career is comprised - the right book idea, the right agent, the publicist - come to us by the same engine that provides the details in the books we write. I have heard the stories of hundreds of flourishing writing careers, and none of them went according to plan. The writer wrote the book they most wanted to write, and the writer loved the book, and the writer wanted to share the book, and somehow the right person appeared in that writer's life to help them share it, just as the right ending appeared in that writer's imagination to finish it.

I understand that this not how most of us have come to define certainty; in fact, this is how many of us define uncertainty. Yet the worst agony I have experienced came when I believed I must know something it was impossible for me to know - like, say, the future. That is certain. Meanwhile, the greatest relief I have known came when I stopped worrying about where I needed to go, and paid attention to where I actually was, right now, the present moment, the garden where all creation grows.

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