Saturday, July 18, 2009


John Ramsey Miller

Here I am, a once-upon-a-time-NYT-best-selling author, back at the beginning of my career yet again, but with a couple of million books in print. This is the third time I’ve been writing a novel without a publishing contract and I’m not getting any younger and other than writing novels I have few prospects for an alternative career. Writing thrillers is easy for me. Everything else looks really hard.

In my life––if you count the part time gig in high school––I’ve had exactly four jobs as an employee of someone else. I drove a delivery truck for Solomon’s Dry Cleaners in the eleventh grade. I got fired after my fourth accident in two weeks. Mrs. Solomon was nice about it. Her insurance company insisted she replace me. After high school I worked a summer on a tow boat that ran up and down the Mississippi River non-stop at five knots maximum from New Orleans to somewhere up the Ohio River. The engines were so loud you couldn’t have a conversation except out on the barges. The food was excellent. They had to put me off in Greenville, Mississippi after I got sun poisoning after spending a day on the barges outside New Orleans. Fair skin made a day laborer in the sunshine a pipe dream, and truthfully it lacked something crucial. My third actual job was as a graphic artist/photographer for a TV station in the Mississippi Delta. I got fired because I hid Martha Mitchell out from the media and the TV station thought that was some sort of a breech of media ethics. Evidently I was supposed to hold her down while they skewered her. I was glad I got fired. Working at a TV station sucks. My fourth job was in 1978 as the official disseminator or public information for Leflore County Schools, the poorest county school district in Mississippi, which means poorest in the free world. The predominantly black county schools had books from the 1960s that the white school students had dog-eared, scribbled in until they looked like redacted documents from the FBI, and could either burn or hand off to the county. There were actually high-school teachers at the county schools who didn’t have a college degree and were no more than babysitters. In Mississippi the county schools were historically parking places until crop season. The federal government paid my salary. That job I quit. I can’t remember exactly why, but I guess it was being that I figured being depressed was something I could manage on my own without the government’s help.

Before I started writing, I made a living as an artist or a free lance photographer or something else I did to earn money and I never went hungry. I’ve made my living writing since the mid-eighties. First as an ad copy writer, a journalist, a non-fiction author, as a scriptwriter, and a thriller author. I have made a living at it, although not as good a living as some, better, I suppose, than most fiction authors. I do have a book in the can and I'm going to do some painting and sculpting before I start another book. This writing thing keeps me off balance and maybe I'm as insecure as most other authors I know. It's just a weird business, and its the business side I don't think I'll ever understand or master. I'm not much for politics, and self promotion has never been easy for me. I grew up in a "be modest" and "don't blow your own horn" family. I guess I need a larger ego than I possess, more self assurance or something.

Writing has always been easy for me. I just sit down. I see the scenes and I transcribe them. Maybe it’s too easy. It’s something I know I’m good at. I enjoy doing it. It has been my art form and I have painted my words, told my stories, on an international scale. I have touched people, made their lives better for a moment or two. I am blessed and lucky and fulfilled in the writing thing. As long as I enjoy it, I will keep doing it, but not one moment longer. You have to make a living, but life is too short to do a thing you don't love doing.


  1. A terrific and timely post for all of us, I think. I've been asking myself a lot lately--like the last 2 years--why I continue to write fiction when I make a pretty good living as a nonfiction writer and the fiction remains, largely because of the business/promotion aspects, a big headache. Good luck.

  2. John, as always, your great story telling skills come through in your thoughtful posts. With a diverse background like you, I can relate to the variety of past jobs as I worked my way to this point. I'm finishing up my fifth novel. But unlike the others, this one is on spec (by my choice, BTW). It adds a bit of uncertainty to the mix, but in reality, what is certain, especially in the publishing business. Good luck with your new one.

  3. John - I could have easily continued my past careers as a lawyer and an economist and would have made good money but...I think my soul would have withered up and died. Far better to do what you love...though I'm with you, the writing is the easy bit - the business side of it sucks. Australians and Brits aren't known for tooting their own horn so I feel I have a double handicap:)

  4. Great post, John. When I was at Wellesley we could take classes at MIT--I took several journalism courses there. I had a teacher who described a writing career as "Work is play." Other jobs are simply work, but writers get to play as we work. Which is why we love it, no matter what.

  5. My favorite job of all time? Grounds crew back in college. They gave me a riding mower and told me to keep a sector of the campus in shape. Heaven. Tan as mahogany. Sony Walkman (that shows my age) on for 8 hours while I cut those perfect lines in the grass. It all seemed so simple then.

  6. I have a zero turn radius Toro Time Zero with a 21 HP engine and I love mowing my yard and field with it. Love my gas operated weed eater too. Also have a four wheeler with a winch and a couple of trailers as well as a DR motorized wheel barrow that will haul 1500 lbs of whatever you can get in the bed. Gosh, I love my yard work. It gives me time to think.