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.
Sean Williams is one of those people who you can actually say needs no introduction–he is one of Australia’s most successful spec fic writers, carving out a massive career overseas and having played in some of the coolest franchises in the universe. He was also one of the writers who appeared on the “Paying for Our Passion” panel at Conflux. His honesty in sharing his own struggles, and his obvious empathy for others who are struggling, was a reminder of why I not only aspire to emulate his writing success–but also his character.
I’ve had a fantastic career. That is an undeniable fact. To suggest otherwise would be disingenuous and self-serving. I’m exactly where I dreamed of being when I dropped out of university to become a writer twenty-five years ago. Everything I want now can be summed up by one four-letter word: more.
The universe, however, is telling me: less.
Being prolific has been my undoing. Nobody cranks out six million or so words without consequences, and for me those consequences begin and end with chronic pain, pain that never lets up, day or night. I don’t wake up screaming every morning, but there are times I feel ill to the point of vomiting and emotionally desperate for release. I’ve gone on and off various drugs and had one operation, to no effect. If there’s an end to this, I can’t see it.
It’s got so bad that I’ve considered giving up writing. But that begs the question: what else would I do? Every time I try to take time off, I end up squeezing in a short story because stories, like virtual particles, appear spontaneously in a vacuum and must be written. I’ve always said that I would write music again one day, but that still leaves me at a keyboard, situation unchanged. I’ve considered taking up a hobby, but not being a sporty person, I’ve yet to find one that relieves my hands or interests me much. Reading is great, but even more sedentary than standing at a desk. I’ve taken up Pilates and Tai Chi to get my body moving, but I can’t do them without making other parts of my body creak and twang like a rusty old piano.
In short, age sucks. And it’s just going to keep on sucking until we find a cure for it.
I’m not alone in this. Everyone experiences significant pain at some point in their life. Everyone finds ways to deal with it. Once upon a time I’d get together with my writer friends to bitch about money and the market, but now we exchange health tips and coping strategies. Usually we gripe in private because it seems churlish to say that the career of our dreams, which many other people dream of having, is even slightly tarnished. But I think there is value in being open about these things. Not to get sympathy, but to stand as a cautionary example.
Don’t ignore the twinges. Be active, even in small ways. Treat your occupational health and safety as seriously as you would expect any other employer. Invest in a robot body the second they become available. (Join the queue.)
However, there are positives as well as negatives.
Stories come from our lived experiences, so if we’re living in pain, then that pain will inevitably inform our creativity. After a bit of a crisis early this year, I’ve recently found myself overflowing with ideas inspired by my condition, ideas that speak back to it in ways that I find both cathartic and creatively fulfilling. My gut tells me that these might be the strongest stories I will ever write . . . but I still have to write them.
The act of writing may be a source of unspeakable pain some days, but on other it is a source of great succour. Focussing on the latter I hope will be the best medicine of all.
Sean Williams is an award-winning, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of over forty novels and one hundred stories, including some set in the Star Wars and Doctor Who universes. His latest is Twinmaker: Fall, the final book in his Twinmaker trilogy. He lives just up the road from the best chocolate factory in Australia with his family and a pet plastic fish.