Friday, December 14, 2018

why do you do this?

Kate Higgins posted an interesting question in the comments section of the blog post on selling War and Peace:
However my question still stands, why do you do this?

The easy answer now is that I'm not fit to do anything else.

But if you go back more years than I'm ever going to say a while, you'll find me enrolled in physics, chemistry, and Statics and Dynamics. And math classes. I love math. I love the purity. I love that there is a right answer. I love how organized it is.

Then, I took the first test in a math class whose name I'm completely blanking on but it was the one right after calculus.  And I bombed the test. I mean, there was a crater next to the test station, smoke and the scent of singed hair.  I'm not sure, but they might have called the paramedics.

I went to my advisor. I said "I just bombed this test." I was so shocked I actually wondered if there was an error on the test (there wasn't.)

My advisor asked me a couple questions.
(He was a really smart guy, and not just about math.)

Then he said "Janet, you don't think abstractly at all. You can't see what isn't there. Are you having trouble in the blueprint class?"

Well, yes I was. I thought it was cause I can't draw for shinola, and the class was at 7:30 in the morning, and it wasn't being held in my bedroom, so I had to get up at some unspeakable hour and get in the shower and out the door when sane people were still snugly abed.

My advisor said "I don't think engineering is going to work for you. What else do you like to do?"

And I said "read" and he said "the English department is just down the quad, go pay them a visit."
So I did.

And I enrolled in Survey of English Literature 101 (having never taken a lit class in my life) and was introduced to Chaucer and it was all over but the studying.

As it turns out, they'll give you a degree (with honors even!) if you're willing to read a lot of books and talk about them cogently.

They'll throw in another degree in history if you're willing to read more books about real events, write a hundred papers about those books, and sit in the library doing research for a couple years.

Who knew!

So, I graduated with degrees in history and English, and promptly went to work as a bookkeeper.

Cause, as it turns out they'll give you a degree for reading a lot, but they won't actually pay you a salary for doing so. (Believe me, I looked. That job Robert Redford has in Three Days of the Condor? NOT REAL!!!--I was heartbroken.)

So, life carries on, as it is wont to do, and one day, a friend of mine describes this cool new job she has that requires her to READ BOOKS.  I might have fallen on her bosom, sobbing, at the idea this kind of thing was an actual PAYING JOB.

Well, it turns out she was a book publicist, and that job is reading and talking about books. All kinds of books. I may have told her I wanted her job every day for a year.

Finally she hired me. It was probably either that or arrange to have me be kidnapped by aliens.

So I became a book publicist. And I got paid to read and talk about books.

Only, as it turns out, back then, I was talking about books to a lot of people who didn't really care about books. Radio show hosts who just wanted something attention grabbing being the prime example. Off the book page newspaper people who wanted something attention grabbing.

And one day, it was just too much.
Publicity is the most thankless job in publishing.
I did it until I couldn't do it one more minute.
Complete and utter burnout.

Well, that was a problem because they don't pay you to sit around and be an ex-publicist. I needed to earn a living.

So I called in my coven of business advisers and described the problem.
I didn't want to leave publishing and learn a new trade.
That was about the only condition I had.

So the first question was "what other jobs are there in publishing?"
And we made a list.
Some I was clearly unsuited for: assistant of anything for starters.
And someone said "what is an agent" cause that was on the list.
And I said "an agent sells books to publishers."
And my friends said "isn't that what you kind of do now?"
And I said "yes"
So I decided to become an agent.

And God did not laugh. Which was one of the miracles of my life, to be honest.
Instead the path was smoothed in front of me: I moved to New York, I stumbled into a group of established agents who mentored and guided me, I found writers willing to sign with someone who had almost no experience, and editors who were willing to buy books from someone they'd never heard of.

So, the short answer to why do you do this is "because I can't do anything else", but the real answer is "because it brings me immeasurable joy, and I believe with all my heart and soul that this is the work I was always meant to do."

I don't know very many things absolutely, but this is one of them: Joy is how you know you're doing the right thing.

I do this because it brings me joy.

I hope what you're doing brings you joy.

And if you're not, this is a good time of year to think about how to change that.

56 comments:

Jeannette Leopold said...

Thanks for this, Janet. This might be my favorite of your posts.

Timothy Lowe said...

"And God did not laugh..."

One of the best lines I've read in any of these posts, and I've read a lot of great lines.

Merry Christmas Janet and reefers (hmmm . . . is "reefers" really the right word?) Enjoy the holiday, the hiatus, the reading - we all look forward to 2019's wisdom with bated breath.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...


Yep, Jeanette, I agree. This post is one for the books :)

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I've wondered that question before, Janet, though perhaps a bit less abruptly. Maybe more like "how did you happen into this lovely daydream of a dayjob?" :D So happy to read the answer! Everything is a process, isn't it.


Timothy I think we're Reiders at the Reef. I think.

Theresa said...

Thanks for the wonderful story, Janet, and how great that you made your way to your dream job.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Thank you for sharing this story, Janet. A path smoothed out for you. Life brings some pretty amazing moments out of the "no"s and the burnouts. Wishing you joy in all of the books you'll be reading. Hopefully a goodly number of them will suck you into their world!

Sherry Howard said...

Loved hearing this journey! Sometimes what looks like default is destiny.

Gigi said...

This is so lovely. Your authors (and we readers) are really lucky to have you.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I am so glad God didn't laugh when you became an agent. The stories that came to be at your ripping and tormenting of writers is, no doubt, a boundless treasure trove.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Karen My daughter is struggling with same thing in New York. She has to move in February. She really needs something full-time. She works as a bar-tender to supplement her income but she does not want that to be her entire life. She worries that her burn out in casting will hurt her prospects.

I keep sending her book job listings. She would be brilliant in publishing. But I am mom and she always counts on my bias in her favor as something the world will not award her. It is very hard to find a path forward with no money and no idea where to turn. That is why this blog post is so inspirational. Most of us hit those dead ends, flame outs, and burn outs.

When I was starting medical school, I got pregnant and found myself alone with a child pending. I was burnt out in school, not sure what to do, and I didn't want my baby to suffer for my abysmal choices. So I learned programming at the hospital where I was working for almost no money, helped create automated programs for the surgery schedule, for the insurance billing for anesthesia. I had friends in my theater group that knew lots about programming that helped me learn.

I was always writing but despaired of being able to support myself and a baby on the $20 or so I occasionally earned for a short story. So programming was the default. A means to an ends. It allowed me to raise my child, and eventually gave me the time to write, especially once I started working for my school district. Life is always an unpredictable journey. Remember, the hard times pass. Everything, joy and pain, is temporary. Just keep pushing towards that light at the end of the tunnel.

Karen McCoy said...

I am so glad you shared this. Again, this blog somehow manages to reach me in the exact place I need it. Must be those super sharkly mind powers.

E.M., thank you for sharing your story too. I can relate to feeling stuck. I love California. I grew up here, and nowhere else has felt quite like home. However, even though the road was paved here, it's proving very hard to stay. I mentioned that the company who owns our house is looking to sell its rentals, and has given us 60 days to vacate. On top of that, it's becoming very hard to support myself without a full-time job (I'm still looking for work), while building a writing career. I'm sure what is meant to come will happen in due course, but right now I'm not sure how to move forward. I will keep writing, and querying, of course. But I'm having trouble seeing through the fog, at least for the moment.

Karen McCoy said...

And thank you, E.M., for your kind and inspiring words!

Rosemary Boyd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mister Furkles said...

Likely it was Linear Algebra which can be either unspeakably hard or a lot of fun depending on the professor and the book used. But it might have been Differential Equations or Advanced Calculus. Very likely the problem was that your math department did not teach mathematical proof theory. In the day, you were just supposed to know or pick it up by osmosis. Now most math departments offer a class in mathematical proof theory.

I was once a grader for a Linear Algebra class and my little heart went out to those students because many had no clue what was and was not a valid proof. I’d had trouble learning it myself and got it from studying analysis texts on my own. Lack of pressure helped.

So, once upon a time, an English prose expert with a background in Calc, Physics, and Chemistry, would be ideal for technical writing. That paid nearly as well as engineering. But no more. Now engineers who are often inapt at writing, are paid a third more than tech writers, take twice as long to compose, and do half as good a job, they must do the tech writing. It saves money. Huh?

Better to be a successful literary agent than a tech writer anyway.

Amy Johnson said...

A path smoothed out in front of you, immeasurable joy, and a belief that you're doing the work you were always meant to do. That's powerful and beautiful stuff right there.

I was surprised to read that publicity is such a thankless job. Guess I'm naive about it--I would have thought people would be very thankful.

Karen, I hope your path is smoothed in front of you.

Wishing you a great hiatus, Janet, and a Merry Christmas. Thank you for all you do!

Carolyn Haley said...

I followed a similar, shall we say "indirect" path, and ultimately arrived at the same happy ending. Turns out I was born to be an editor! And I love-love-love my work.

Claire Bobrow said...

Jeannette Leopold nailed it, so I'll repeat her words: Thanks for this, Janet.

wordsmith said...

Thank you for posting that. In high school I wrote for a newspaper, loved it, got paid a little, but knew that writing wasn't a great way to make money when I was on my own at 19. Scholarships and grants and entrance to a chemical engineering program at a big university. Hit that same brick wall in math. Got a degree in microbiology, did research, managed a Ford dealership, with dog training running in the background all through. Now in my seventh decade, writing again. Short stuff for which people actually send me a little money. Full circle, despite off ramps.

Brenda Buchanan said...

Beautiful post, Janet. Right on the mark. My second favorite line?

"That job Robert Redford has in Three Days of the Condor? NOT REAL!!!"

Best line of all?

"And God did not laugh."

Thanks to Kate for asking the question that prompted this wonderful response.

Claire Bobrow said...

Oh, Mister Furkles: Linear Algebra is the perilous sea upon which my math ship sank.

nightsmusic said...

You are one of the few, the fortunate who do for a living what you love to do in real life. Husband runs the engine build room for GM's Corvette Racing. When he's not at work, he's building engines for others, or himself. He's done it forever and loves it. He's a math wiz, but it never interested him. All he wants to do is make things go fast.

I'm glad you weren't a math wiz. I'm glad you found what makes you happy. It's a rare thing, that.

Melanie Savransky said...

Hey now, Mister Furkles, don't knock tech writing-- it's kept me in stockings and gin for years. But I'm glad Janet found a profession that brings her joy. (And this blog, too, brings me joy, so thanks to Janet and everyone here for that.)

Karen McCoy said...

Thank you, Amy Johnson! Your writing always inspires me, all the time.

Craig F said...

It was probably Geometry & Topology. That is where math takes on volume and doesn't look like numbers on a page anymore.

I had a scholarship to the U of M coming out of high school. Now I design canoes, kayaks and stand up paddleboards. It still amazes me how many things can't be done without solving at least some math.

Glad you moved on, my Queen. Engineering is the only place, outside of Academia, that math pays the bills.

Y'all have a wonderful weekend.

Miles O'Neal said...

Melanie, I don't think Mr Furkles was knocking tech writing, just the corporate culture that deprecates it. A lot of tech writers have been laid off or had their salaries eroded the past two decades because of ignorance in management or "experts" in business. I've watched it in the lives of friends, and it's maddening.

E.M., I know a lot of actors and musicians in the same boat as your daughter. It drives me nuts.

As for me, I've always been both right and left brained. I loved software engineering and IT, and they pay well. But I also love writing, and it's time for a change, so I've been pursuing moving into writing full time. Yeah, I know. Crazy talk. But I'm going for it.

Thanks for the story, Janet, and for all you do.

Jen said...

Oh wow. Brilliant post. Thank you for sharing.

As a former history major, I laughed out loud at your summary. It was perfect.

"And God did not laugh" is my new favorite line of all time.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I love this...

Fredric said...

Be careful, Ms. Reid. Sharing your human side can be detrimental to your image as a toothy predator with her mouth full of hamsters, still in their wheel.

And how do you know God din't laugh for joy when you found what you were meant to do?

Colin Smith said...

Great story, Janet. One for the Treasure Chest for sure!

My chief concern is that I'm not squandering either the time or the talent given to me. Discerning the latter is not always easy, especially when you can have fun turning your hand to more than one thing. With a family, clearly your primary concern is providing for them, so you do what you have to do. And sometimes that's all you can do, and the writing, etc. has to be a hobby. But family is as much a gift as anything else, so time and talent invested there is never time squandered or talent mis-spent.

Anyway, that's at the heart of all my writing dilemmas of late, i.e., looking for objective indications that writing fiction is a worthwhile investment of time. So many people do this gig and many do it better. Does the world really need my contribution to literature? Or should I be contributing elsewhere?

In the meantime, I'll continue raising my family, working my job, writing whatever whenever I can, and pray something comes of it all. :)

Richelle Elberg said...

Love this post, and all the personal anecdotes. I wanted to be an author when I was little. Specifically, I told my parents I was going to be Laura Ingalls but I wanted to live in Maine.

In high school I wanted to be in business, or a diplomat. Or an art director or architect. Wound up with a degree in International Business and Marketing.

Joined the Army (State Dept. dreams). Married my Russian language instructor at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, after realizing that taking orders really wasn't my forte. My 'honorable discharge' is 27; his name is Ryan. ;)

Found a financial analyst job in Carmel, CA of all places, and have been, mostly, doing that for nearly 30 years. Writing AND math! (Owned a night club and a B&B in there too).

But about 10 years ago I remembered my childhood dream and started writing novels. I have 3 under my belt and a fourth in the works. The day job pays the bills, but fiction brings pride and joy. Still hoping it will also pay the bills one day, but I'm proud of what I've done either way.

And again, LOVED hearing about your path Janet. Thank you for all you do here. Your wisdom is invaluable--and your posts are one of the first things I read every day once coffee is in hand.

Happy holidays everyone!

John Davis Frain said...

Writing brings me joy. But it will bring so much more when my writing starts bringing other people joy.

Colin, I TOTALLY understand where you're coming from. Hang in there, but I won't give any advice. You'll have to decide your future. None of us knows.

Anne said...

What a great blog post for this time of year. Thanks!

RosannaM said...

That was such an interesting story, told with such a writerly flair. You are clearly in the right field. But I do suspect you are also fit to do other things, but perhaps with less joy, so clearly you are in the right job.

Colin, I so can relate to your struggle. Time is a precious and limited commodity. And I think the question we face about how to spend it is really an existential one. We want what we do to matter.

And to bring us joy, like Janet said.

BTW, I've read your short stories and enjoyed them...so keep at it a little longer, please!



Barbara Etlin said...

My guess is Statistics. Even my math-whiz friend, who eventually became a doctor, said she was worried about failing it.

Many years ago, I took some aptitude and interests tests to try to find some alternate career to writing. Guess who scored in the 99th per centile for artistic jobs? I did return to university to take courses to qualify for speech pathology--even that involves language usage--but statistics was my Waterloo.

I'm not sorry I remained a writer.

Happy holidays and hiatus to Janet and the Reiders of the Reef.

Lennon Faris said...

"So I called in my coven of business advisers..."

Anyone else imagining half a dozen cats with spectacles, giving sage advice? No, just me? OK.

Anyway, I loved this post. I love parts of my career, but overall it does not bring joy. I am too empathetic and worry too much about patients. Wish I could compartmentalize.

Writing and art definitely bring joy. (Math, too!) When I am published, I hope that never changes.

Karen - the Reef should stay steady, if nothing else. Thinking of you.

John - your car story in yesterday's comments totally cracked me up. Hope that doesn't say terrible things about me.

Colin Smith said...

The only joy Maths ever brought me was when I finally passed my Maths O'Level (I re-took it so many times it was a GCSE by the time I passed) and I never had to take another Maths lesson in my life.

FirstBorn experienced a similar joy when, after a lot of late nights and stress, she passed her required Math course this past semester. (I ranted about the US system and how stupid it is that Theater/English majors have to take math in college on my blog, so I won't go there here.) She can now concentrate on the courses that actually matter for her degree. :)

BTW, tomorrow is FirstBorn's birthday. She'll be baking her own cake, of course. By choice. And by demand. :)

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Karen,

Thinking and praying for you. Hope your housing situation gets resolved asap.

Tales from Teesside said...

My favourite blog gets better every day - an inspirational post and any blog which mentions Three Days of the Condor deserves extra kudos.

Karen McCoy said...

Indeed is has, Lennon! Thank you!

Karen McCoy said...

Thank you, Cecilia!

JEN Garrett said...

There's that whisper in my heart again, "You're barking on the wrong side of the query desk." Don't get me wrong - I love to write and I hope I'm writing something worthy of being published. But my heart pitter-patters when I think of acquisitions or editing. Maybe some day I'll put down my pencil and pick up a red pen.

CynthiaMc said...

I'm good at money math,cooking math (fractions) and abstract math - the more abstract the better. Geometry was fun - math as art. Algebra was invented by Satan.

Panda in Chief said...

Janet, your post made me get just the tiniest bit weepy. The twists and turns in each of our journeys brings me such a sense of wonder. I loved hearing how you arrived where you did from where you started, along with the other origin stories that people have shared here.

I pretty much knew from a young age that I wanted to make pictures. It took me a while to figure out how to do it well enough that people would pay me to keep doing it. In fact, someone came to my studio today, bought a painting, and said, "I want you to keep painting." It's true that I am not qualified to do much of anything else now. And now that I have begun to marry words to pictures, or make pictures that stand in for stories, I can look at all the twists and detours that brought me me, with awe and joy and wonder.

Beyond what you do to bring the work of your clients into the world, you have also created a space that is warm, inclusive, safe, informative, and challenging all at the same time, for writers of all kinds. I can't even remember how I first staggered in the door, but someone must have handed me some scotch, a cookie, placed a cat on my lap, and invited me to stay for a while. Thank you Janet, and thanks to all who swim at the Reef. Reiders all, I wish you tidings of comfort and joy.

nightsmusic said...

CynthiaMC

Algebra was invented by Satan.

YES!! THIS!! Right here!

Unknown said...

Your posts always provide great information about the biz and the people trying to get into it, or those struggling within it. But this one? You made me smile while reading about your journey and I'm so very glad you found your joy. "God didn't laugh..." and we reap the benefits of that open door. Merry Christmas to you and yours, fur persons included.

KariV said...

Thanks for sharing, Janet! What a beautiful story.

I hope you enjoy your hiatus and have a very Merry Christmas.

Reiders, thanks for all your comments every day. Sometimes the Reef feels like such a family :)

Enjoy the holidays, all!

Megan V said...

Thanks for sharing Janet! It's the perfect story for the upcoming holidays. :)

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Great testimony.

Karen, I feel you. That is exactly where I am at.

Colin ... I too have had those doubts. There is so much great fiction out there, why should I add to the pile? My answer is that this is what I have obviously been designed to do. All that stuff about "don't write unless it comes bursting out of you and you can't hold it back" ... it's a cliche, but for some of us it's a true one.

Janet ... I read a great book recently about how advanced mathematics have become an artificial barrier to people who would otherwise do well academically. Which you obviously did well despite the math, but imagine, some perfectly smart legal or journalistic brains can't get into college because they can't pass trigonometry! What a shame. Anyway, there was also some stuff in there about how math profs tend to want to teach the students who get it intuitively and not bother with the unwashed masses who need abstract concepts explained. There was a certain element of conspiracy theory to it, but as a very verbal, non mathematically minded person, I found it affirming. I think it was called The Math Myth.

Ann Bennett said...

With time being a precious commodity, this suggestion may seem absurd. But your writing is beautiful. Maybe it's time for you to write a book on life, love or thoughts. I don't read too many blogs about selling a book. Selling is such a far off thing for me. But I do enjoy the heart that you share in your posts.

Colin Smith said...

Jennifer M.: I don't often post links to my own blog here, but it's late, hardly anyone's still reading, and this is relevant to your comment:

U.S. Higher Education: A Humble Rant

KDJames said...

Wonderfully written piece, Janet. Just lovely. As much as I adore your snarly rants, I so appreciate seeing this side of you as well. Thank you for sharing it. It's interesting how many parallels there are between your path and mine, given that they're also completely different.

I love this comment section, and that's a rare thing. Wishing all of you joy in what you're doing, or the courage to embark on a journey where you'll discover it in new things.

Waverly said...

Yes, this is definitely my favorite post you've ever written, and I love all of your posts. And I loved learning about the path you took to find your joy. Mine is writing. Alas, and hooray!

Jessica said...

Thank you for this Janet. I loved reading your story of getting started (and how matter-of-fact it was!). I'm glad you decided on agent :)

Donnaeve said...

I've heard snippets of Janet's story and I love that the final FULL story was shared.

Sometimes the path to what we really want to do takes all sorts of twists, turns, backtracks, or comes to a dead end. This, I think, is why hearing about anyone's journey is so interesting.

Good to see some of the old "faces" out here!

LynnRodz said...

Thank you for this post, Janet. From the time I was about 9 years old I knew I wanted to travel and see the world, but not just see it. I wanted to live and know the places I was visiting. If I liked a place, I stayed; if I didn't, I moved on. And that 9 year old girl didn't want to get married or have children because those things would tie her down and nothing was going to stop her from seeing the world. And just like you, God did not laugh, instead He gave me the courage to do just that.

It wasn't always easy for a girl traveling alone, hopping on and off trains, or boats, or hitchhiking, and most of the time not understanding the language. I realized years later, it wasn't easy for my parents to let me spread my wings when there was no internet to keep us connected, to get letters with news that were months old, or phone calls from the other side of the world once or twice a year. To them I am extremely grateful for letting me dream my dreams, then living them.

The joy of packing my bags to see a new destination has never waned. I've been to over 60 countries around the world and lived in a number of places, yet Paris is home. As a matter of fact, I am off again with hubby (long story!) to Argentina and Brazil after the holidays. Sun, beaches, and tangos will replace gray skies for the month of January. Thank you again for letting us take a peek into your life.

Mike Hays said...

This post brings the power! Thank you! Spending one's life doing what brings one joy is one of the most undervalued aspects of modern American life. How many of those career tests they give in high school ever ask what brings you joy?

Writing is all about finding that joy and is most satisfying when you find that sweet spot.