In this series of guest posts, I have asked a number of writers and editors to share the price they pay for pursuing their creative passion or what they sacrifice–whether that is money, time or lost opportunities. It might be how they pay the bills that writing doesn’t, or how they juggle working for a living or raising a family with the time it takes to write or edit. The people who have contributed have shared their personal stories in the hope it might help those new to the scene manage their expectations, or help others dealing with similar things realise they aren’t alone. You can read about the inspiration for this series here, and if you want to be part of it please let me know.
Monica is one of the many wonderful people I have met through my membership in The International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, and I am delighted to welcome her to my blog today. I have felt incredibly privileged in that people have been willing to share so much of themselves, and be so honest with my readers and I, in this series and this post is no exception. So, when I decided to relaunch the series I knew that this would be a wonderful post to start back with.
I’d encourage you to visit Monica’s webpage to have a look at the amazing work she is doing, and for all you Firefly fans out there (and I know most of you are!), check out her book–shiny!
When David and I talked about the possibility of a guest post for his wonderful website, I didn’t expect to be writing about what debts I’ve paid to be a writer. Normally, when I answer interview questions, it’s about my process or the work itself to show a) there is a writer’s brain locked in my skull and b) maybe, just maybe, you’ll be interested in my work. I don’t talk about myself very often; believe me when I say this post is an exception rather than the rule. For me, however, I want you to know the word “debt” doesn’t just translate to finances. It’s also about making gut-wrenching decisions to pay for the ability to pursue my passion: writing.
Growing up, I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t an artist, in every sense of the word, lost in a psychedelic, frenzied dream. I was always a writer plus. I learned to read as a toddler, I began piano lessons in kindergarten, and I had a gift for language. While music was my primary focus for years, libraries were my sanctuary from bullies on all sides, and making art—all art—was my religion. (It still is.) This bit, right here, is why I’m telling you this: I never cared about the business aspect of selling my art as a child, because I didn’t need to. That was my safety net, because the freedom to create without worrying about failure, food, or homelessness, allowed me to make art whenever I wanted to. So, I wrote school plays, children’s books, essays, short stories, and novellas. Drew and painted, too, of course, but much of my brain was also dedicated to my music. My art leaked out of my fingertips and on to the page or the keyboard, because I always pushing, pushing, pushing to break free, to feel free, to simply…be.
Pressure, being what it is, usually means something has to give sooner or later, and I was suffocating from it. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t “supposed” to be an adult and focus on my future to marry “well” and have lots of babies. I never was one to listen, however, but eventually I internalized that pressure and realized that being an artist wasn’t enough. At 16, I knew I had to learn how to make a living at it. I just didn’t know how. To that end, I could’ve applied to Juillard or tried living/working in Hollywood or New York—but I couldn’t afford any of that on my own. There was no chance, no way in hell, I could even scrape together enough money for the plane ticket. Financial and emotional support for my efforts was selective; this meant that I wound up in a constant state of anxiety, worried that there was something wrong with me because I was an artist and not a doctor or a scientist. I was a woman, and not a man. I was smart, too, but that only mattered provided I agreed to take the narrow path before me.
Caught between being an adult (making money) and remaining a child (making art), I gave up my idealism and focused on pragmatism. I all but abandoned music, not only because it carried too much baggage, but because I couldn’t see how I could make it work. In this “new, smart and capable” version of myself, I made some great choices and some really shitty ones. Thankfully, my college degree was paid for, but much of my experiences revolved around fighting for approval with little support. There were a few bright spots, though. Back then, I felt surrounded by worldviews that didn’t feel right to me, so I focused on multiculturism and secretly added several courses into my Bachelor’s program to that effect. This was the beginning of a journey I don’t think I’ll ever abandon and that, to me, was a great choice, because it opened me up to a world of literature I never knew existed. The shitty choices, then, originated from not knowing much about anything other than making art. I felt defined by my container, my body, and not by my creativity. And, when my normally-bright mental capabilities failed me, as I futilely attempted to push myself into the sciences, I felt I had somehow lost there, too.
Anyway, after college I knew I didn’t want to go to grad school; I was burnt out by the time I graduated and I couldn’t afford it, either. Thus, I felt extremely naïve and unequipped to deal with the outside world. Instead of building the life that was expected of me, I took every job possible, believing that knowing marketing and sales and basic business practices would help me build a career as an entrepreneur, as a writer. I convinced myself if I just “knew enough”, I would figure out a way to make a living at it. Everybody else thought I was being random, but I felt I needed to focus on the basics, especially since I was secretly afraid that my self-worth was only about having babies—a thought that terrified me. How else was I supposed to earn enough money to pay rent if I didn’t find a real job? How could I keep writing if I didn’t have some other practical skills to fall back on?
I did focus on the real world. In fact, I gave up writing for a while, because I wound up lying to myself, claiming it was a luxury I could not afford. I had a normal, ups-and-downs, run-of-the-mill life, because I was desperate to fit in and “be normal” on my terms. Only, I hated those years, because that wasn’t me at all, but it was all I had. I opted to be near my support network, as emotionally and psychologically draining as it was, because it was either that or go it totally alone—and that scared the shit out of me. So, I wound up internalizing a twisted view of the world, which meant that artists fell into the category of “unapproved” and “frivolous” people unless they were successful classicists. Artistic works evolved into this sticky ectoplasm that only famous (male) artists had the right to capture and collect from the ether; only they are blessed for their greatness with fans, money, acclaim. And, if nobody else can achieve that “level”—a word I have now grown to hate with every cell in my body—that means their art must suck. Everybody else is either selling out, or they’re not worth spending time or money on. Right?
Eventually I hit bottom, and I blamed myself for not making the run-of-the-mill life work. I bounced from job to job in every industry imaginable, I was laid off multiple times, I was in near-fatal accidents, and I couch surfed. I felt powerless, unloved, and undervalued as a human being, and it almost killed me. I understood that having food on the table and a roof over my head was more than many people got—especially since my college had been paid for—but at what cost? My soul was ripped in half. I hate that word, too, “soul” because it sounds so cliché, but how else can I describe that pain? It felt as if every time I had the opportunity to be myself, I was punished for it. Every time I tried to be anything but myself, I was punished for that, too.
After surviving too many close calls and near misses, I was desperate for change. The alternative was not an option for me; I had seen too many lives taken unexpectedly, and I thought to myself, “If I died tomorrow, what would I regret the most?” The answer was immediate, and I still remember feeling stupid for thinking it at the time: “Not writing, not making art, not being true to myself.” So, I funneled all of my hope into the unknowable future, instead, and burned that old life to the ground. All the while, I prayed I was doing the right thing, hoping I wasn’t hurting anybody by choosing me. I wanted out, not because I desired an esoteric happiness, but because finally realized I was committing the greatest crime of all: I was betraying my true self by pretending to be something I wasn’t.
Now, about a decade and many life-altering moments later, I write full-time. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point, and some years have been better than others, but I can honestly say I am happy for the first time in my life. I know very little about the Kardashians of the world or who’s who in Hollywood, and I don’t understand the “people” side of the industry, either, with respect to awards-or-organizational drama, but I am writing. I never regained the stars in my eyes, mind you, but I do have a small but tight-knit supportive network of close friends and family. And, I have a partner who supports me for me, both financially and emotionally; he knows this business is incredibly unpredictable. Sometimes, he supports me. Sometimes, I support him.
While I’m not okay with all he’s done to ensure I can continue to write full-time, I make up for it in other ways because that is the nature of our relationship. We are partners. At the same time, I wouldn’t be writing full-time without him, because I couldn’t afford it. After all, making a living as a writer isn’t about “a” sale or “a” gig or “an” advance, it’s about the ability to earn income based on words written and sold on a consistent basis. Thus, if my partner wasn’t around, I couldn’t do what I do year after year, at least not right now. I’d have to make different choices, about what I wrote and how I sold it, and I’d have to get a day job to pay my bills. My goal right now, however, is to make a living plus, which means writing isn’t my hobby. This, for me, is not a calling, and it’s not “just” a job, either. It is my life, and it’s the only one I’ve got.
So, that’s my story. Those closest to me know I am both haunted and fiery to varying degrees at all times, and they know the debts I’ve paid—emotional, financial, social, even physical. They also understand why I am focused on writing, on filling up those blank pages, on getting that next gig, too. And, despite my best efforts to the contrary, that—writing—is all I have control over. Everything else, I’m simply making up as I go along.
Monica Valentinelli is a writer, editor, and game developer who lurks in the dark. She writes both original and media tie-in fiction and works on games and comics, too. To date, she has over seven dozen creative credits with more on the way. She is best known for her work related to the Firefly TV show by Joss Whedon. She was the lead writer and developer for the award-winning line of Firefly RPG books, and also wrote the Firefly: The Gorramn Shiniest Language Guide and Dictionary in the ‘Verse which was released from Titan Publishing in April 2016.
Published stories and games include “Tomorrow’s Precious Lambs” for Extreme Zombies, “The Dig” for the Lovecraft Zine, Dread Names, Red List for Vampire: the Masquerade, and Unknown Armies Third Edition. Monica also recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign for a co-edited anthology titled Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling from Apex Book Company. Her debut comic
Man Zombie Standing was published in 2013 as part of the Unfashioned Creatures: A Frankenstein Anthology from Red Stylo Media. You can discover more of the author’s creative works through her fiction publications or her game publications.
Her non-fiction repertoire includes online articles, worldbuilding games, reference materials, and essays. She has written for sites including HowtoWrite Shop.com, Sony’s Crackle.com, SFWA.org, GeeksDreamGirl.com, and BookLifeNow.com. Her essays have appeared in books such as Family Games: The 100 Best, The Bones: Us and Our Dice, and For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher.
Monica holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives with two very spoiled cats nicknamed Lord Lardbottom and Captain Whinypants, an albino water frog named Al, and her fiance. In addition to writing and editing, she enjoys traveling, designing jewelry, cooking, taking photos, gaming, watching anime and martial arts movies, exploring old places, and hiking. She is represented by Jennie Goloboy from Red Sofa Literary.