Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wordcraft -- The importance of being employed

It’s a fact of writing life that most writers cannot support themselves solely through their writing. Sound bad? It’s actually great!

Because jobs don’t just pay the rent, they give us something to write about. The presence of raw material for characters, plots and setting is so essential that even if we don’t need a paycheck, we should consider getting a job. Even a nonpaying one.

Consider Dallas-area writer Susannah Charleson. She’s worked actual paying “day jobs” -- college professor, flight instructor, radio and TV broadcaster. But the material in her 2010 nonfiction bestseller, Scent of the Missing: Love & Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog, comes from her volunteer work as a canine search-and-rescue team member.

Ms. Charleson recently worked with the actors and crew of the TV version of Scent of the Missing, in which she’ll have an Alfred Hitchcock-type cameo with Ponchatoula German Shepherd Smokey, shown in the accompanying photo by Smokey’s trainer Ed Sanders. Her next book, The Possibility Dogs, is due out in 2013.

What’s her insight on the symbiosis between writers and real-life experience?

“Writers have the opportunity to observe and interpret second-hand,” she said, “as well as a chance to get out in the world and do a thing and translate those experiences directly. Both are valuable, but often, I find, it’s the voice of genuine, first-hand experience that makes your work unique. There are a thousand bystanders for every person stepping up. Getting in there and living an engaged life makes the writing richer.”

Scent of the Missing follows her transition from searching crime scenes from the air (an extension of her work as a flight instructor) to the not as glamorous as it sounds work of ground and water searches with dogs.

“Three to seven training hours a week,” she wrote, listing the requirements for search-and-rescue (SAR) work. “Plus expected home study, plus emergency calls. . . One friend asked, ‘Does it pay well?’”

(The answer was, not at all, in dollars.)

Like a thread through her story runs the story of the dogs, especially the golden retriever, Puzzle, she trained in rescue work, and whose picture adorns the book’s cover. For more about Ms. Charleson and her dogs, see or her Facebook page. She and Puzzle tweet jointly as PuzzleCharleson.

(Next Wednesday -- Members of Southern Methodist University’s Creative Writing Program talk about life after seminars with New York agents and editors.)

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