Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

Pro-ness, part II

Yesterday I asked what your definitions of "professional" were. There was a cornucopia of responses, all of them quite good, most of which generally fell along the lines of suricattus's remarks:

Pretty much the same thing it does in any career: Working hard to hit deadlines, exceed expectations, and satisfy the person(s)who sign your paycheck (in this case, both editors and readers). Not sticking your foot in your mouth so far you can't recover is good but not essential, as has been proved time and again. Accepting that being talented only covers so much, and that hard work often more than compensates for a lack of genius. Knowing that it's not enough to get there, you have to work to stay there, wherever "there" is for you. Doing things that may not be as much fun, because they're needful for the job.

In short: remembering that it's a job. It's the best job I can ever imagine, but it's still a job.

Interesting. Consider that part of what got me thinking that we're not all singing from the same sheet music was tim_pratt's comment in my recent post "On television, gaming and writing":

I'm content to write 250,000 words or so per year -- a novel or two and a bunch of stories per year seems like enough, for me personally, and that's only about 125 hours a year of first draft writing time (I still cruise along at around 2,000 words per hour). Triple that time to include revising and business stuff, and it's still only about 7 hours a week of writing work.

Back on the professionalism post, davidlevine also offered this:

in the usual fannish sense of "published in a professional venue'

So now we have three operating definitions, the one offered in passing by davidlevine, as well as the self-descriptive elucidations by tim_pratt and suricattus. This is actually where I was going in my head when I asked the professionalism question. In effect, I think the definition is rather fluid with time and circumstance, much as davidlevine implied, in that he was drawing a distinction between where people stand in relationship to their work on several axes.

Thoses axes are:
  • Career arc
  • Financial relationship to writing
  • Writing ambitions

And we'll call the three definitions above (all obviously subject to endless refinement and discussion):
  • Writing as primary, full time employment
  • Career expansion as an established author
  • Career initiation as an emerging author

How do this fit together? (You knew there was going to be a table, didn't ya?)

Full time
Career arc
Financial relationship to writing
Writing ambitions

Table 1. Success criteria in defining professionalism

I'm not certain that I've demonstrated anything terribly useful here, and I've certainly made a number of highly arguable statements, but the underlying point seems to me to be valuable. The definition of professionalism varies with the scope of your desire and your relationship with your work.

Case in point: Howard Waldrop. I don't think he models well into any of the above definitions, yet he's inarguably a professional, and by some lights one of the leading pros in the field. Howard has his own relationship with career arc, finances and ambition which reflect deliberate choices on his part, choices he's made and stuck by for many, many years. In this sense, to my thinking he resembled tim_pratt, in building a life model that doesn't include the broader definition of dedication-to-job indicated by many of us.

Me, I treat it like a second job. I work hard, and I work a lot. I'm definitely in career expansion mode per the above model, beginning to be meaningfully concerned with my career arc (since I now have one), still fairly indifferent to my financial outcomes (I don't pay the mortgage off this stuff), intensely focused on my ambitions.1

On the other hand, as Gavin Grant said to me last summer, "You can write four or five books a year. You could write until you're seventy. Does the world really need over a hundred Jay Lake books?" Gavin wasn't making an argument for putting the brakes on or scaling back, simply for the sake of slowing down, nor was he making an argument for a tim_pratt style assessment of my overall time commitments. He was just asking me what I thought I was doing, and making an argument for remapping my process to write a handful of great books instead of a trunkload of good ones.

Me, I'm writing. I could get hit by a bus walking home from this coffee house (sorry, Scalzi) and I would be done. I could live to be a hundred and thirty seven. How do I know? What I do know is that at the ripe old age of 42, I'm sufficiently conscious of my own mortality to already feel like I'm running ahead of the tide. My answer to Gavin is that I know my own process, and the way I'll get to a great book, if I ever I do, is through the pages of a lot of good ones. I haven't reached greatness yet, as a writer or a human being, but like Moses I've been vouchsafed a glimpse of it. Unlike Moses, God has not promised to strike me down.

So my definition of professionalism? Write as well and often as I can, treat my art like art, treat my business like business, and be as nice as I can to people. Everything else is situational.

And if I were forced by venomous fate to cut back that list, writing would be the last to go. As always, the final answer is "write more."

1 There's a school of thought amongst some of us writers that holds "ambition" to be a dirty word. Often this is the same mindset that sneers at self-promotion or indeed, marketing of any kind. I submit this is an outgrowth of the Romantic obsession with art as a product of suffering, cross-fertilized with some Platonic notion of the purity of art. I also think it's bullshit. If a writer lacked ambition, they'd never submit a story. Any writer who's ever sold anything anywhere, as opposed to waiting around to be noticed, has acted on ambition. Get over it, ambition is a powerful tool in helping make us who we are.
Tags: personal, process, writing

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