I recently dated an author of speculative fiction. After a decade between novels, his fourth book was released while we were dating. We went through the anxious pre-release build-up, the interviews and the worry, and the post-release wait for reviews. His next book was already alive in his mind and he needed to write it down as soon as possible. It was the story he had to tell.
I’m at the other end of the writing spectrum. I’ve been an author of non-fiction for the past 20 years. I started my career as a journalist in 1996. I remember the moment I decided to become a writer. I was in Nepal at the time, walking in the Himalayas, contemplating life.
My thought process went something like this: I want to be a writer. What do I write? If I write books, it will take ages and I might never get one published. What is an actual job that writers get paid to do? Journalism. Yes. Great. I’ll do that.
Authors of fiction and non-fiction are identical in ways. We both need to write, rather than want to. We express our deepest selves through words and storytelling. We research, we speak, we create. Writing is a powerful expression of our soul, our voice, our being. The act of writing is deeply fulfilling, cathartic and life affirming. It nourishes us in a way nothing else can. It is what we do and who we are. It can be our hobby, our vocation, our job and our career. Writing is our life purpose.
Good fiction needs fact and good non-fiction needs creativity. As Mark Twain said, “never let the truth stand in the way of a good story, unless you can’t think of anything better.”
But there is a fundamental difference between us writers. Fiction writers have to tell THIS story. The one in their head, the one that is eating them from within, the one they imagine, the one they see everywhere, the one that keeps them awake at night. It has to be THIS story. They don’t get any peace until they sit down and express the story they long to tell. And they may not get paid while they are writing THIS story.
On the other hand, non-fiction writers can write ANY story. It simply has to be the TRUTH. It is the act of writing that is important to us, not necessarily the subject matter. Granted, some stories are more interesting to write than others. But the story can really be about anything, what matters is the TRUTH. And the truth is often stranger than fiction.
This is why I still call myself a writer after a decade in corporate communications. I have worked in public relations, marketing, digital content and social media. Now I write digital strategy informed by data, research and the world. It is factual and challenging and creative. But as long as I am expressing the TRUTH, the writing process feeds my soul.
As a non-fiction writer, there are a plethora of mediums and opportunities to express yourself. You can tell stories about people, companies, business, culture, travel, experiences, events and results. You can write articles, posts, website copy, video scripts, tweets, reports, presentations, business cases… the list goes on. And so do the jobs. You can actually have a full-time job.
This makes for very different lives. He creates fantasy, I explore reality. He writes seven days a week, all-hours, and I work business hours. He writes freelance, I work for a company I believe in. He worries where his next pay will come from, I’m on a good salary. He has little time to enjoy life, I have enough. Ironically, being fellow writers created more differences than similarities between us.
Until artificial intelligence makes us all redundant, the beautiful truth for non-fiction writers is the eclectic choice of possible career paths. And the freedom we have right now to be paid professional writers.