Recently, bestselling writer and physician Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone) published in the Washington Post (December 9, 2011) an essay ostensibly about how he finds time to write. But the article wasn't really about that: he was really explaining to his readers why he puts most other things in his life -- his work as a doctor and professor of medicine, and his family -- before writing. In his essay, he makes a case for writers keeping a day job, and of the value in remaining tethered to our non-writing brethren through this essential part of the human experience.
Verghese's piece interested me because I have recently been placed in the opposite situation. I was lucky enough -- very lucky, given the current book publishing environment -- to have gotten a contract for three books, and although I had every intention of continuing to work full-time as I wrote, I recently resigned from my day job in order to complete my second novel.
I felt as seriously about my non-writing career as Verghese obviously feels about his. My day job, you see, was as an intelligence analyst. I spent nearly thirty years working first for the Defense Department, then for mysterious entities sometimes referred to as "those three-letter agencies" in movies. It was a career I'd enjoyed and was proud of, and it was more than a little scary to think about giving it up.
I'd always wanted to write fiction for a living. It was a dream I'd had since I was a child, before I knew how difficult it would be to achieve, artistically as well as financially. By the time my book sold, I had a long history of adult behavior, of paying bills and taxes and maintaining a good credit score. My parents, both of whom had lived through very hard times, had steered me towards a job with the government because it would be secure. I'd spent my adult life in one of the most stable professions imaginable: as long as you can hang onto your security clearance, chances are you won't lose your job -- ever. I'd spent thirty years in a career as cloistered as medicine. And here I was, walking away from it.
I'd worked hard at becoming a writer. I went to graduate school part-time, attended conferences and workshops, listened to my favorite authors read at bookstores and book festivals. Most importantly, I wrote every day. It took ten years to write my debut novel, The Taker, starting in the year 2000. We all know what happened in 2001. Following 9/11, I spent two years on special assignments for my day job, including hunkering down at the Pentagon from late 2002 through the summer of 2003. We all know what happened in 2003. (If you need a hint, it involved sending U.S. forces to a little place whose name begins with an "I".)
To say those days were busy would be an understatement. Particularly the months at the Pentagon: I often worked 16-hour days and had a two-hour commute. It is not an experience I would want to relive, for a number of reasons, but despite the physical and mental stresses of my job, I worked on my book every day. I was afraid to stop. Anyone who has devoted himself in a similar fashion to an endeavor will understand: it's not unlike training to be an elite-level athlete. A little voice inside warns you that if you stop, you might not be able to make yourself work that hard again. That may sound superstitious, but fear is often irrational.
Now, I am in the exact situation Verghese warns against. (And for the record, I'm certainly not arguing against Verghese's advice, nor am I comparing myself as a writer to the bestselling Verghese.) I agree with Verghese in that the purpose of life is to live meaningfully. When you isolate yourself from the rest of the world in order to write, you're in danger of producing work that is sterile, artificial or self-indulgent. But many writers are not in situations as advantageous as Verghese's. For some, eking out a novel every eight, ten years isn't a viable option, especially these days when readers expect a book a year. I can only hope that, in my new circumstances, I will create work that draws on the many years of rich experiences I gained in the workplace. That I can use the time I now have to reflect on those experiences, make sense of them, and find a way to retell their lessons in stories that readers will find enriching.
Alma Katsu is the author of The Taker (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster), a Booklist Top Ten Debut Novel of 2011. The second book in the trilogy, The Reckoning, will be published in June 2012. You can find out more about the books at http://www.almakatsu.com.