Friday, September 19, 2008

A Day Job: The Cure For Writer's Isolation

By John Gilstrap

For me, the dream of becoming a full-time writer turned out to be a bad one. My first book, Nathan’s Run, sold very well and a lucrative movie deal followed. Eighteen months later, a second bestseller and a second movie deal convinced me that maybe it was time to walk away from my career as a safety and environmental engineer and do this writing stuff full time. After all, isn’t that the dream of every artist—to get paid full-time for what you’ve always done just for the love of it?

My son was nine years old back then, and this whole adventure was brand new. Here I found myself with a healthy bank account, some minor celebrity and a dream at my doorstep. How could I not walk away from the humdrum world of business? My wife and I moved to a little nicer house, to a better school system, and for the next seven years or so, I lived what was supposed to be my dream.

I should have known early on, though, that I had chosen poorly. Those were the halcyon days of the brand new Internet (at least as far as I was concerned), and AOL had a terrific authors’ room called The Writers Club, where I spent hours chatting with the likes of Tom Clancy, and the then-unknown Harlan Coben, Tess Gerritsen, Lorenzo Carcaterra and our own John Ramsey Miller. On any given day, I spent at least as much time in that chat room as I spent at my computer screen creating the stories that were now the sole means to pay the mortgage. I wasn’t ignoring my responsibilities—I was still churning out books—but I was hungry for company.

Here’s the thing: I am a classic Type A personality. I am an extrovert in the true meaning of the word—I draw energy from being around others. By spending my days in writer’s isolation, I was feeding my creative side while starving my need for social interaction. I made the best of it, turned out four novels and four screenplays for the studios, but I needed change.

The final blow came in 2004, when my baby boy left for college (he just graduated cum laude from Virginia Tech—way to go, Chris!), and my faithful foot-warmer and dear friend Joe (the dog) died at age twelve. My wife and I were truly empty-nesters. My wife had embraced the need for social interaction two years before and gone back to work, so that meant it was literally just me and my imaginary friends knocking around the house all day. It was a loser of a plan.

So, I sought and found a day job again—my wife calls it my big-boy job. I am the director of safety for a trade association in Washington, DC, just three blocks from the White House. If I could magically remove the commute from my daily equation, it would be perfect. On the other hand, without a daily trip on the subway, where would half of my characters come from?

Oh, and as for the writing . . . I am at least as productive, if not more so, as a part-time writer as I was when I was full-time.


  1. That's a good point I think many writers miss. I have been allowing myself to dream that dream too as I try to get published. It may be a stretch yet, but it is my goal to make a living at this writing stuff.

    In the dreaming though I am quickly understanding how either boring or distracting it would be to be at home all the time.

    Distraction would easily come because I have three kids, the younger two my wife homeschools. It may quickly become too hard to write while wanting at the same time to join their lessons (my middle son and I just created a clay tablet written in an English equivalent of Sumerian Cuneiform telling the story of Sargon I, they study some cool stuff).

    On the other hand, if they were not around it would quickly become too quiet, and I think I might get very bored, very quickly.

    Hmmm. A dilemma I have boxed myself into without even having sold a single book yet. I feel like giving up already.

    My wife and I talked it over (I know it seems like I'm putting the cart before the horse) and I have decided that even though there's not a paycheck yet, it will come. It will likely be big, therefore let's plan what to do and be ready to not be bored or distracted.

    My job is perfect for writing, and pays pretty well too (think IT version of the Maytag repairman). Any money I make from the writers life will pay the bills, pay off the house, maybe get a better house or car and fund a nice vacation, but the job will stay....or I will become a world famous convention speaker and travel the world and solve everyone's problems and maybe even invent the internet.

    Oh, wait. Someone already that last bit...Dang...maybe I'll just give up now.

  2. Hi John, Good to know that old adage still applies, "Never Quit your day job." I think writers do have a tendency to enter a creative echo chamber when isolated too much. Be it financial need or creative, I do work better when I have a bit of enforced structure in my day.

  3. John. Having met you on the internet, I have lived these past twelve years as your friend and it has been a high honor and a true privilege. I could not have made it through my many publishing downs without your moral support and so many kind words of encouragement. I am looking forward to many long years to come, and you are truly one of a kind and generous to all struggling authors, published and not yet published. We both know what we have been through, and how delicious it is to come out writing. God bless you, Mr. Gilstrap.

  4. John, I'm touched. And for the record, that moral support and friend-when-I-needed-it thing is a well-traveled two-way street, my friend.

  5. It is such a relief to read that someone else feels isolated while home writing all day, too! I'm not even an extravert, but this much alone time is difficult for anyone but the most massively introverted.