Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Writers of all work

with 7 comments

When I was younger, I wanted to be a man of letters. I wasn’t sure what this meant, or even if such a thing still existed, but based on my vague sense of what the position entailed, it sounded like an ideal job. You’d be a novelist first, sure, but you’d also write short stories, nonfiction, criticism, and more, following your own inclinations, after the example of many of my early heroes, like Norman Mailer. It never entered my head to wonder why a writer might produce a body of work like this—I assumed he did it just because it seemed cool. But the more time passes, the more I realize that the figure of “the man of letters” is really a byproduct of years spent looking for ways to make a living while writing. And it’s been like this for a long time. Speaking of the essayists of the eighteenth century, whom he calls “writers of all work,” the critic George Saintsbury says:

The establishment of the calling of man of letters as an irregular profession, and a regular means of livelihood, almost necessarily brought with it the devotion of the man of letters himself to any and every form of literature for which there was a public demand…It became, therefore, almost necessary on the one hand, and comparatively easy on the other, for the [writer]…to be everything by turns and nothing long.

Strike out the phrase “comparatively easy,” and you have a pretty good description of the contemporary freelance writer, which is essentially what Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and other denizens of Grub Street really were. They worked as essayists, dramatists, poets, and producers of what Saintsbury calls “hackwork or something more”—translations, histories, popular science—as demand and opportunity required. They were, in short, freelancers. And if their work has endured, it’s because of their exceptional talent, productivity, and versatility, all of which were born, not from some abstract ideal of the man of letters, but from the practical constraints of being a working writer, which is something that every freelancer can understand. They just happened to be better at it than most.

Looking at my own life these days, it’s clear that I’ve had to be “everything by turns and nothing long” to an extent that still takes me by surprise. In the past couple of months alone, I’ve seen the publication of my first novel, worked on the copy edit of the second, and pushed ahead furiously on a rough draft of the third. I’ve written a couple of articles, including my debut essay in The Daily Beast, as well as a long Q&A, a guest post on another blog, and thousands of words here. I have a science fiction novelette coming out in Analog in July and I’m preparing a proposal this week for another nonfiction project. In short, as usual, I’m working on a lot of things at once that don’t, at first glance, have much to do with one another, and sometimes the payoff can be hard to see. But this is what being a working writer is all about.

And this sort of multitasking has creative benefits as well. Drew Goddard, talking to the New York Times the other day about Joss Whedon’s wide range of activities, puts it nicely: “Everything became a vacation from other things.” When you get burnt out on one project, it’s nice to have something else to turn to instead, and your various pieces of work can inform one another in surprising ways. I’ve learned a lot about structuring nonfiction from my work as a novelist—a good essay is often surprisingly similar to a well-constructed chapter—and my fiction, in turn, has benefited from the skills I’ve acquired as an essayist and, yes, a blogger. Everything feeds into everything else, if not right away, then somewhere down the line. It keeps me sane. And after forty years of scrounging around, I’ll have a body of work of which I can hopefully be proud. Because in the end, a man of letters is just a freelancer who survived.

Written by nevalalee

April 18, 2012 at 10:48 am

7 Responses

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  1. I had never really considered the concept under this light, but it makes an awful lot of sense. You really have to be in love with words and producing them to make a solid living out of writing, regardless of what genre of text you have to produce.

    Joe Pineda

    April 18, 2012 at 10:53 am

  2. Agreed! As I see it, productivity is the one good habit that leads to all others.


    April 18, 2012 at 7:32 pm

  3. Thanks for the perspective. That’s brilliant! I’ve always wanted to be a woman of letters, and I’m just getting my editing career restarted, so I’ll be thinking about your “freelancer who survived” line as I diversify.

    Every writing-related activity builds the writing muscle, although last night in my writing group, a published author read us a grant proposal he wrote at work. “This is why I am not writing anything right now,” he said. I have to admit it was the best grant proposal I’ve ever heard–beautifully written and convincing.


    April 18, 2012 at 10:04 pm

  4. Glad you liked it! And forget about writing novels—grant proposals are the real test of genius.


    April 18, 2012 at 11:15 pm

  5. You make an excellent point here and thank you for proving that I’m not insane for trying to work on four different subjects in one day! Btw, can I have a copy of your new (not newest sequel!) book? Have a great day!

    Jamie London

    April 19, 2012 at 12:41 am

  6. Thanks, Jamie! Believe it or not, I don’t have a lot of extra copies on hand these days, but I’m sure you can find a copy somewhere. :)


    April 19, 2012 at 8:00 am

  7. Thanks so much…pardon the greed…I can swing 10 bucks for an excellent writer – I can tell just by reading your article “Writers of All Work”. You already have shown uncommon insight, the makings of a fine and diligent writer.

    Jamie London

    April 19, 2012 at 8:30 am

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