The Story of My Professional Life

I commune with a fascinating group of blogging friends on the Internet — kind of a wireless support group.  Together, we write a collection of very different blogs, ranging from cooking (Wasabimon) to dogs (Champion of my Heart) to motherhood (Mothering Outside the Lines).

Even blogs I didn’t expect to be interested in have proven fascinating.  See the Frugal Kiwi, which focuses on the most extraordinary, creative craftwork I’ve ever seen.  I could have sworn I had no interest in crafts, but Melanie’s creations wow me again and again.  (They also make me feel inferior, since I couldn’t make anything like her octopus in a million years — but hey, that’s my problem.)

Recently, one of the group members, Alisa Bowman, was emailing about her upcoming book, Project Happily Ever After. Alisa’s topic and her honesty about book publishing elicited long horror stories from other group members about their own brushes with and bruisings from the publishing industry.  Everybody could relate.

I didn’t add my own war stories, since I knew they would take too long.  After all, I’ve been toiling away in newspapers, magazines, books and blogs for more than 30 years.  But I thought I’d add my own little history of How You Shouldn’t Be a Writer if You Want an Easy Life.  Or if You Want to be Rich:

1979: I’m a lawyer.  I’m also working in the world’s worst job, as an indexer for a legal publishing company.  This is closely post-Watergate and I am obsessed with the Washington Post.  I start telling my husband I think I can write pretty well, too, just like the reporters at the Washington Post.  I mention this several thousand times.  He finally suggests I should write and submit something instead of just yammering about it.  This remains the best advice I ever received about writing.

I send in an essay about taking the Virginia bar exam.  It gets published in the Post‘s Outlook section.  I take this to be a Sign and immediately quit my job.  Writing is easy!

Early 1980s: I publish essays in the Post and The New York Times.  I work as a feature writer for the Charlottesville Daily Progress.  None of this pays much money.  So, after giving birth to my first child, I write a humor book about pregnancy with a friend.  We call it  Stork Realities.  It’s going to make us rich and famous.

Mid-1980s through early 90s: I work for the Dallas Morning News.  I publish another humor book, Parents: A Toddler’s Guide.  I’m still neither rich nor famous.  Right before Parents comes out, a marketing executive at the publisher calls to tell me my book has “taken this place by storm.”  By now, I am older and wiser and I take a little bitter pride in the fact your heart can only get thoroughly crushed once.  I hang up the phone and tell my husband that I’m a big star that day, but they probably won’t even answer my phone calls in a few weeks.  What do you know?  I’m right.

1995: Wow, I’m really successful.  I’m doing a column for the Dallas Morning News, a column called the Frazzled Gourmet for Cooking Light, and I’m a contributing editor at Parents magazine.  I’ve had a Hers column in The New York Times and a humor piece in Redbook.  I’ve also written my first piece of fiction, a novel about a girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock in 1967.

Well, it turns out they can break your heart any fucking time they feel like it.  One by one, the newspaper and magazine columns disappear, as does the contributing editorship.  Just like that.  I am also diagnosed with breast cancer.  Strangely, the longest of my long shots, the novel, is accepted for publication as a young-adult novel.  It’s called  Don’t Think Twice.

1996: My newspaper column comes back.  My cancer does not.

1997 to present: I write two more YA novels, do radio commentaries for Austin’s public radio station, KUT, publish a few assorted pieces in The New York Times, become a columnist for the Texas Observer.  In 2007, I start to blog.  In 2009, my first adult novel, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough, is bought by Berkley.

My advice to anybody: I still go back to what my husband told me years ago.  If you want to write — then write.  Don’t waste your time or bore the world by talking about it.  It hasn’t been easy, I’m still neither rich nor famous, but what the hell.  For some reason, I love writing and am unwilling to check back into therapy to see what’s wrong with me.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read a timely lesson about why you should always treat writers well, called
slipping in the shiv

23 comments… add one
  • First of all, thank you for the mention. I know people get skeeved, like … does she really blog about a dog? Yes. Yes I do.
    If I could have even 1/2 the professional success that you’ve had, I’d be a pretty happy girl … I think.
    Or maybe I’d still just be a nervous, worried writer girl trying to pay the bills. You never know. Could go either way.

  • Writing must be one of the most challenging professions out there, but I agree, Ruth, when you gotta write, you gotta write.  Thanks for sharing all the ups and downs of your career.  I love reading your blog.  Your writing sparkles and you often make me laugh, or relate to your sorrow, or think, oh, right!  That happened to me, too.  You capture life so well in all its vicissitudes. Thank you!

  • I love the names of all of your books. But I especially loved reading about the ups and downs here, because it’s all so true for so many of us. People go into writing, sometimes, hoping for riches and fame. There are many bonuses to this field, but wealth and fame are rarely among them. So entertaining!

  • Sure, I can make an octopus, but you make me feel again and again that I’m right there with you. THAT is true magic.

  • Wow, what an interesting writing life you’ve had! Thanks for sharing the ups and the downs and being so honest and straightforward about it all.

  • You don’t know how much this post speaks to me on a day where, professionally speaking, I just want to scream.
    Good to know, I guess, that I’m not alone.
    What I most enjoyed, tho, is getting to know you a little better, Ruth.
    Who knew you were once on the food beat as well?
    Kudos for a rich and varied writing career — and sage advice for other scribes.

  • I’d say your writing life is a definite success, Ruth. Keep up the writing and doing what you love, because so many of us out there think it’s really, really good.

  • My daughter once said, “Mommy, you can be famous without being rich, can’t you?” She was talking about us. And I’m NOT even famous. But I am fabulously NOT rich. Sigh.
    This post kicks serious ass. You are so right about writing. You have to do it if it calls to you. And you probably won’t get rich or famous. But I do manage–albeit with difficulty and not always very gracefully–to support a family of six with my writing. So you can make money at it too. Just not enough to be free from worry-induced insomnia at 4:00 a.m.
    And thanks for the shout-out about my blog.

  • I love this post, and I love your writing, Ruth. And your post is a great description of this thing we call the writing life.

  • Rich doesn’t count. And I have the feeling that the biggest best selling author in the world thinks that she is not a success because she has only ONE….or only TWO… New York Times Best Seller list books….and even with more Best Sellers, she never had a movie contract…or if she had a movie contract…never got an Acadamy Award…or her mother never told her that her writing was good…..
    That is just the way it is with the best writers–never satisfied.
    YOU, are an enormous success in my book, kiddo. Just because you know how to tell it like it is.

  • I so loved reading about everything you’ve done, Ruth. More than the fickleness of the publishing world, I saw someone who kept writing because, well, she loved writing.
    Sometimes, when I’m working on different projects, I take note of how I feel working on it, and I find it fascinating how my priorities have changed. The big-money project I’m working on with the big-name author? So excruciating and tedious to write? The very personal posts I’ve been writing lately for my new parenting blog? They’re a joy to write, and even more of a joy when people connect with them on a personal level.
    I just want to keep feeling that, no matter how much money I’m making, or how much visibility I gain. If we just focus on that, writing will always be a joy (even if it’s also often infuriating).

  • Huh, interesting to compare your post to a recent Q&A about a writer who started out as a therapist– Seems many of us avoid writing because we’re not sure that it’s a ‘career’ but then we just can’t resist the urge to write.

  • Fascinating read. Thanks for sharing your life with us, Ruth.
    I, too, am going on 30 years in the writing business and am neither rich nor famous. I’m starting to think that’s not the goal. Maybe the journey is the goal.

  • Ruth, I can so relate to all you’ve written.  My fifth book just came out.  I’m neither rich nor famous, although I sure thought I would be when I started.  You write because you have to write.  It’s a bumpy journey at best, but I don’t want to do anything else.

  • I think we all owe your husband a great big thank you.  I love your writing and am glad you chose this profession even without the wealth and fame.

  • Thanks for sharing your journey and the sage wisdom of your husband to just write. You do this so well. I love your blog. You always inspire me to simply be myself in my writing.
    Thank you again,

  • Susan Link

    As a newer writer, I found it fascinating and inspirational to read about all these ups and downs. Love the title “stork realities,” too!

  • Ruth: I’ve got 40-plus years in as a writer and 17 books. I, too, am not rich and famous. But I wouldn’t have wanted any other career. I’ve long said a writer must get some form of psychological payoff from telling stories. Of course, a little more money would be nice, too. Mike Cox

  • Most of the time, I can’t even function until the words are out of my head and down on paper. As you say, it’s not easy but it is a labor of pure love. Even though I’m overwhelmed with work and broke, there’s absolutely nothing I’s rather be doing. Good to know I’m not alone.

  • Hmm-I have some commonality with you, but have ended up in a very different place.  I am a lawyer, and have practiced for over 20 years. I always wanted to write, but raising three children and trying to stay above water financially always came first.  Now the kids are gone, and I have lost interest in the legal world.  I want to write!!  I am taking classes, and have just started to write, write, write again.  It feels so good.  I have been starving for it all of these years.  I certainly will be neither rich nor famous, as either a lawyer or a writer. But I feel better now.

  • I hope all writers who are not rich and famous read this.  It is full of wisdom and good writing.

  • This post came to me on a particularly relevant day (or week, or year, depending on how you look at it). I’ve been dealing with a lot of existential ennui lately, especially revolving around my career. Thanks for writing this – it really spoke to me.

  • Oh, and thanks for the link!

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