In a cinematic precursor to his current real-life lunacy, Mel Gibson played a nut-job cop in the Lethal Weapon films. In his first outing as Detective Martin Riggs, he grabbed the chance to talk a jumper out of throwing himself off a high-rise. Having handcuffed himself to the potential suicide, Riggs (suicidal himself) quickly gets pissed off with the dithering guy, and flips out.
“Do you really wanna jump? Do ya? Well, that’s fine with me. I wanna jump. Come on, asshole, let’s do it … let’s jump …”
I paraphrase from memory of a film I last watched five or more years ago, but that’s pretty much it. Riggs then pulls the guy to the edge and jumps and they both plummet earthwards, only to land on a huge air cushion courtesy of the LA Fire Department.
It’s getting tenuous again, I know, so it’s time to say: That’s a lot like freelance writing.
You can’t launch yourself off a building if you’re physically clinging to it, or if you’re mentally clinging to thoughts of life. Similarly, anyone who’s serious about becoming a truly successful freelance writer eventually has to jump. At some point they have to stop shuffling around the roof, taking baby steps towards the edge and backing away again, and they have to launch themselves off.
I suppose your personal need to jump all hinges on how you define a successful freelance writer. For me, it equates to being a repeat-published novelist. For me, that’s the pinnacle. I may be wrong, but I very much doubt there are many freelance writers who harbour no thoughts whatsoever towards having a career as a published novelist. And I don’t mean just a couple of books aeons ago (like me), but rather an ongoing success story that goes from strength to strength.
So how about making that jump? You know me: I’m too dour to ever reassure that you’ll land on a huge comfy air bag, but you will land on something. Many will just splat on the pavement (sidewalk to you colonials) in a red ink-like explosion, and, dare I say it, many will deserve that fate, but others will have a soft and dreamy landing; the air bag will be there for them. Let’s make an analogy and say they will land on a big fat cheque for writing services rendered.
But you’ll only get that big fat cheque from a committed jump into the unknown. If I jump off the pavement, it won’t necessitate anything to compensate the action, i.e. I won’t get paid. Perhaps if I jump off a car roof, someone may need to shove a mattress in the path of my descent. That’s a small cheque.
Now to the big question: what’s stopping you jumping? And to the even greater question: even if you think you’ve jumped already, have you really?
I did. Once upon a time. I wrote like a man possessed and had two novels published. But then I picked myself up off my fat cheque, wandered back in the building and took the elevator back up to my room to have a nice lie down. In literary terms, I’m still there, lying down. I’m not even on the roof taking in the vista, musing on the endless possibilities. I peek out through my bedroom blinds every so often, but the view’s blocked. Too many buildings. I need to get back on the roof, and I would if I wasn’t so comfortable lying down.
Jumping isn’t easy. It requires an emotional commitment – an emotional abandon. You must abandon fears of what you may be leaving behind: a steady (if boring) job, a predictable income, time with family. Most importantly, you must want to do nothing else in your life but jump.
Your heart must be in it.
I’m not sure mine really is. I love my writing, but, career-wise, it’s not my first love. I trained for three years to be an actor at RADA and then spent another fifteen years doing TV work but mostly – as far as the acting profession was concerned – being unemployed. I took one crappy non-acting job after another to keep my hopes alive; jobs I could drop and pick up when I wanted, to ensure my diary was always free for acting work.
The struggle drove me nuts. Nuts enough to jump into writing as a way out. But, if I’m honest, I only threw myself off the roof because, for a little while, I thought I didn’t give a shit about acting.
In truth, my heart is still in acting. I haven’t done TV work in five years, and it won’t happen here in Spain (and probably nowhere and never), but it’s still what I want to pursue more than anything. That one fact relegates writing to a poor second, and that steals any true commitment from it. Emotionally, I can’t jump again. Other people may look on and see me flying off the roof, but it’s not me – it’s a stunt double.
You’ll know if you’ve jumped: you won’t be able to stop writing. It’s all you’ll want to do. It’s what you’ll think about doing when you’re doing other stuff. You’ll stay up at night writing that novel no one’s commissioned you to write. Then you’ll write a second and a third and a fourth although no one wanted the first. And you’ll complete them all and still want to write a fifth. You’ll choose writing over going to the gym, lounging on the beach, watching the tube, spending time with friends, being with your family. You’ll never give up the dream although it’s long since turned into a nightmare, because as long as you’re writing you’re still in free-fall and that’s the only way to keep that devastating head-on-concrete wake-up blow from finally happening.
Me? I’m going to draw the blinds and have another lie down. I think the elevator’s bust, anyway. I’ll check out the view from up top tomorrow or later in the week – when it’s fixed.