I just got off the phone with a former student.
He was calling from the stairwell between floors at the newspaper where he’s worked the for past seven years—pulling long hours, winning regional awards, moving up the pay scale, making a name for himself.
“I got canned,” he said, his voice like a thousand-yard stare.
I pictured him as a college senior, stopping by my office to introduce me to his new puppy. When last we talked, he’d been dealing with the fallout of success. After grad school and a hitch at a small paper, he’d moved on to become one of the go-to guys at a big-city daily—which meant even more hours. He was missing quality time with his toddler; his wife was on the warpath. He was split into fragments of triumph and guilt. How to explain to the others in our lives? The ones we love; the ones we take time away from. Our work is not just work. It’s how we define ourselves. We are what we do.
Until the guillotine drops.
I tell him I’ve never been fired.
And this is why: Technically, I’ve only ever had one full-time job.
The last time I filed a W2 was for 1984. I was 28. That was the year I shed my golden handcuffs to ply the uncertain waters of freelancing. People toId me I was acting young and foolish, and maybe that was true. But I’d made a promise to myself: I wanted to see how far my wits could carry me.
Ever since, I’ve been self-employed, a 1099 sole proprietor with a home office deduction. My wits have carried me through 33 years worth of contracts, many of them annual, most of them one-offs. I still have every piece of paper—folders and folders of signed contracts taking up space in my obsolete lateral file. For some reason I keep them, each one a symbol of a small triumph, the garnering of an assignment, a chance at a payday and maybe even a modicum of glory. Once I had a two-year contract. It seemed incredibly extravagant.
So…I’ve never been fired, but I’ve spent a lifetime doing what you have to do when you get fired—reinventing myself.
Drilling down into the sub strata of my strengths and talents, spelunking the far reaches of my inner universe, seeking natural resources to exploit, a font of winning ideas. And then I’m Willy Loeman, hoping to be well-liked: Searching new markets. Sticking my foot in doors. Suffering rejection. Coming up with the next idea. And the next. And the next.
Inventing and re-inventing. Making it work.
Creativity: It’s not just the product you make. It’s a way of life.
Next year will mark the beginning of my fifth decade in the service of the written word. I’ve written crime stories, celebrity profiles, columns of advice, deep literary anthropologies (a term someone coined with my work in mind), many of which have been collected into eight non-fiction books. A ghost biography of a rock star, two novels, a screenplay, a TV pilot, a pair of restaurant menus…and uncountable queries, treatments, proposals, and lists of possible stories—most of which were rejected.
I’ve become known for writing about the seamier sides of American life. I’ve also become known for writing about coaching youth sports, fatherhood, love and marriage, the life challenges facing men. I am a college lecturer, a publisher of books and texts, a mentor (the pay is lousy but the rewards are great—plus, some of those kids are now my bosses).
I’ve endured feast and famine, triumph and ignominy. I’ve worked for five cents a word. I’ve worked for $7 a word. I’ve reaped seven-figure options and first look deals. I’ve paged though a blank calendar to find nothing pending. I’ve opened up The New York Times and seen my name on the Best Sellers List. Sometimes editors ask me to do stories. Increasingly, editors fail to call me back. Sometimes I go ahead and write RESENDING in caps on the subject lines of my emails. Sometimes I just go up to my living room and spend the afternoon watching a movie.
As I write this, I have several stories in the hopper, waiting to be published. One of them is for the old school Smithsonian magazine, about a cowboy who uncovered an exceedingly rare fossil on a ranch in northern Montana. Lately, as the print magazine business has crumbled and the payments have shrunk, I’ve expanded my terrain further, martialing my publishing assets to work as the design director for a line of marijuana products. You do what you can do. You adapt and survive.
A ticket to the creative game is a box seat in a stadium of self-doubt. Going through the turnstile I had a pretty good idea I was never going to be the next George Orwell or Truman Capote, but still I soldiered on, the work a reward in itself—the sitting and typing, the words appearing magically, the characters taking form, the action flowing. Making something from nothing. Leaving a record behind. And being able to support myself.
On TV talk shows, you always hear Hollywood people telling the host how “It’s all about the work.” It sounds dippy, but it’s true. To create art is to become a god. After that, everything else feels a little hollow.
*This article was published on May 2, 2017.