You cannot make a living at writing, and its corollary, Don’t quit your day job, bounce around the classroom and blogosphere as conventional wisdom. And for good reason: at a moment when bookworld is in such upheaval, few find themselves able to pay the bills solely from their writing.
Still, some do—and many continue to try. The latter group is proving resourceful, too, figuring ways to monetize their skills and passion. The requirement, it seems, in this day of nearly non-existent 5- and 6-figure advances, is to adjust life accordingly.
That adjustment lies at the heart of Building a Life Out of Words, Shawn Smucker’s delightful new book. In telling the story of his own experience of pursuing a career as a writer, Shawn leaves little to the imagination. Building a Life Out of Words describes the ups and downs of such a pursuit in honest, humorous, and sometimes wrenching, detail.
While the book offers a number of practical details connected with making enough to pay the bills, its deeper story has to do with a change in perspective brought on by unsatisfying business ventures. Building a life out of words was more than a job for Shawn: it was an adventure of self-discovery that resonated with a deep sense of personal identity, and worth betting the farm.
He is forthright enough to say that doubt reared up more than once; he is quick to praise his wife Maile for her enthusiastic support, too. Indeed, the backing of Shawn’s family is an important sub-plot in this tale, and a confirmation that it’s good to have a cheering section when you plunge into the deep end of the pool.
As the story unfolds, we watch “a fragile hope beginning to take shape.” Slowly, offers for work come in and ideas for more income emerge, and it looks like this writing life will be firmly rooted. But Shawn insists on casting this tale in different terms; he is not simply providing a blueprint for those wanting to quit their jobs and freelance from coffee shops. For this is also a story of faith, of following one’s convictions, of trusting that God will come through. As such, we read more about the journey than the destination.
Along the way, Shawn pauses to let others comment on their own experiences with writing. It’s a nice collaborative technique, allowing friends, acquaintances, and fellow bloggers (Andi Cumbo, Bryan Allain, Ed Cyzewski, Jason Boyett, Jeff Goins, Jennifer Luitweiler, Ken Mueller, Kristin Tennant, and Stacy Barton) to add flavor as well as a few tips. Like Shawn, they are also honest, funny, and full of hope. Taken together with the call-outs that appear in nearly every chapter (like, “money is a necessary tool for navigating life, not the compass by which all decisions should be made”), these ‘guest-posts’ compress into small spaces ideas worth further unpacking.
Those aspiring to a life in writing will find encouragement and good counsel in this book—but it also has a wider appeal. For this is an adventure story, where decisions are made on the basis of what’s possible and not merely what ought to be done. And having brought readers through the year in which he decided to become a full-time writer, Shawn Smucker then sets up his next adventure: leaving hearth and home to tour the country in a bus.
Via Facebook, I asked Shawn and Maile about this latest leg of their journey. What’s the present shape and aim of your hope? I wondered. Shawn answered that he detects a sharper focus, that he’s shifting from telling others’ stories to concentrating more on those he wants to convey. Maile said she was after “the same sort of stretching and strengthening as we (had) in that first year of Shawn writing full-time. That year taught us a whole new level of faith and rearranged our priorities like no event has thus far in our married life…. I want to experience that sort of deepening on a regular basis by making decisions that continue to grow us.”
Had anything surprised them thus far? I asked, expecting an upbeat reply (who wouldn’t love 4 months on the road in a bus?). Maile admitted to a naive expectation of delight and amazement at every turn–an expectation that has been tempered by fatigue, setbacks, and familial melt-downs. Shawn’s reply sounded a lot like his tone in the book: “I’ve been reminded that all true adventures occasionally feel pretty lousy, and that often times miserable things happen. If everything was safe and uneventful, it wouldn’t be an adventure.”
While Shawn’s honesty came through again, for me the key word in that response was ‘occasionally’. He wasn’t ignoring the troubles of long-haul bus travel, but neither did he succumb to them, noticing instead that the payoff for such a decision is priceless.
It’s the same way with Building a Life Our of Words. The book is straightforward about the pitfalls of a self-employed writer’s life, but puts an even greater emphasis on the deep satisfaction that comes from committing to work compatible with identity. In the end, what I like most about this book is how it’s shot through with ‘realistic idealism’, advocating a shift in perspective that plants “fragile hope,” waits, and watches with delight as it blossoms and bears fruit.