I was reading an article today in The New Yorker about a Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky. In 1964, when Brodsky was twenty-three years old, he was arrested for being a "freeloader." The Soviet state felt threatened by intellectuals. They didn't like the concept of a man sitting around writing poetry. There had to be something subversive in it. They wanted to lock him up. Part of the court transcript went like this:
Judge: Tell the court why in between jobs you didn't work and led a parasitic lifestyle?
Brodsky: I worked in between jobs. I did what I do now. I wrote poems.
Judge: You wrote your so-called poems? And what was useful about your frequent job changes?
Brodsky: I began working when I was 15 years old. Everything was interesting to me. I changed jobs because I wanted to learn more about life, about people.
Judge: What did you do for your motherland?
Brodsky: I wrote poems. That is my work. I am convinced... I believe that what I wrote will be useful to people not only now but in future generations.
Judge: So you think your so-called poems are good for people?
Brodsky was found guilty and sentenced to five years labor in a small northern village.
Now I'm not trying to put myself in the same category as Brodsky. He went on to win a Nobel prize in literature. I'm writing popular (I hope) fiction. But I definitely feel his pain to some small extent. I spent the last 20 years going from job to job in order to support my writing. To me, it was the writing that was always my occupation, even if it didn't pay the bills. But in ours, as in any society, it is how you make a living that defines you. When you go to a party and meet someone new, one of the first things they are bound to ask is, "What do you do?" If I were to say, "I'm a writer," that inevitably leads to the next question, "What do you write?" Keep going down that rabbit hole, and eventually the questioning leads to, "Well how do you make a living?" That is the crux of the matter, to an awful lot of people, just like it was to Brodsky's judge. If I consider myself a writer, but make a living teaching snowboarding, then to most people I'm not really a writer at all, I'm a snowboard instructor, or a furniture mover, or whatever else I happen to be doing for a paycheck at the time.
To a writer, or a poet, or an artist, the work is never really about making a living. At least it shouldn't be. It is much more than just that. It is a calling. With the advent of the ebook revolution, however, I am beginning to make a living at it for the very first time. For so long I've wanted to say, "I'm a writer," without having to go through all of the qualifications. It has long felt like I myself was on trial each time I made that statement, but no more. It is my occupation, it is my calling, it is finally, at long last, it is how I make a living. That in itself is a huge relief...