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QUESTION:

Looking back, what do you consider to have been the "low points" and "highlights" of your career?

-- Submitted Anonymously

OSC REPLIES: - March 12, 2001

Back in 1982, when we were in the midst of a recession, I discovered that my writing income was quite vulnerable to "publisher panic." I was in grad school at Notre Dame at the time (working on a doctorate in English) and had been counting on advances from my novel sales to support us. But when publishers panicked about the high interest rates (they borrow the money they advance to authors), they simply stopped buying books. That is, they had enough of a backlog that they could go for more than a year without buying anything. Unfortunately, because at that point in my career none of my books had earned out their advances, I could not go a year without selling anything. So in 1983, I left my Ph.D. program and went to Greensboro NC to work for Compute! Magazine as the editor of their book division. It was great work, though some of the people I worked for turned out to be not-so-great people (see my novel Lost Boys for details <grin>); nine months later, the recession ended for me when Tom Doherty signed up to publish my Alvin Maker books. I quit my job and went back to work as a writer.

There have been low points since then, financial worries, etc., but in truth, my career trajectory has been steadily up ... ever-increasing audience, even as I learned better and better how to do my work. Trying to establish myself as a film writer, however, has been staggeringly expensive in money not earned and frustration, but even then I can't call it a low point in my career, but rather a challenging and fascinating career change that is still going on.

The fact is, I don't really have a "career" in the traditional sense. I have work that I do, but my real career is my life with my family and as a member of my church. So my jobs, as they change over the years, have been endlessly fascinating, but I have never tried to trace a trajectory of rising and falling. In the Mormon Church, we're all ministers, and I've had the normal variety of callings. This year Sunday school teacher, that year Young Men's president, another time a counselor in a bishopric, another time cultural arts specialist. All interesting jobs, and I do my best with each one, and then the job ends and I move on. That's how I feel about my writing career. I don't have a "career" (will I get that promotion? That raise?) -- I just have this book that I'm working on, and that story I wrote, and these poems I might just publish ...

As far as gratifying moments in my career are concerned, naturally it was fun to get the awards I've received, and when a book sells particularly well, it's fun spending the money <grin>. But neither matters as much as the occasional letter from someone for whom my work has been especially meaningful -- because if my work has any value, it is in the chance it might make someone's life happier. If it doesn't do that, it isn't worth doing. I've been fortunate enough that many of my works have been received by readers who were able to use them to improve their outlook on life, and who were kind enough to tell me so.

In the end, though, the gratifying moments from my writing career are nowhere near as important as the joy I get from the achievements and triumphs of my children, and the low points of my career nothing compared to my anxiety for my kids when they're suffering. Family is important; careers are merely interesting. I could happily change careers (I love to teach, and I'm not a bad stage director ...), but I couldn't bear to change families <grin>.

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