Why do we write? Is it for the fame and the fortune? The respect of family and friends and peers? The goal of making a positive impact on the world? Or is it because of that soul-deep gnawing of creativity that refuses to let us go?
Although all of these factors undoubtedly come into play at one point or another, I’m certain the biggest reason we write is that gnawing in our souls, that inability to express that most integral part of ourselves in any other way than through our art.
Now I’m going to make a pretty educated assumption and say that the second biggest reason is the first one up there in my list: money. What author doesn’t dream of somehow making their art pay? Who among us doesn’t hope to not only sell our work, but to sell so much of it that we end up on prestigious short-lists in the New York Times? If such a person exists—this artist who is so absorbed in his craft that he is able to detach himself 100% from the practical side of things—I have yet to hear tell of him.
Nope, we all harbor ambitions of writing so well that some poor fool will actually pay us to do this thing we’d do for free. And so, not unnaturally, somewhere along the road of writing, somewhere between Beowulf and Boccaccio and King and Koontz, money has become the ultimate validation of an author’s prowess. That first paycheck is a coming of age of sorts. In fact, if you haven’t made any money on your writing, the general consensus maintains that you don’t have any right to call yourself a real writer. Until the money starts rolling in, you’re nothing more than a pretender.
In the unavoidable balancing of art and business, it seems to me that the business end is definitely winning out in the writing world. Or attempting to anyway. And I think that is pitiable, because when you take a long, hard look at the statistics and realize how marginal a number of writers actually make any sizable amount of money—much less enough to warrant calling it a “career”—it becomes clear that this craft is not about the numbers in your bank account.
I find that this emphasis on making money is overdrawn and leads to false expectations, at best, or at worst to uneven priorities—particularly for Christians. What talents God has given us, He has given us for a reason. They are gifts, but they are also responsibilities. For some of us, I have no doubt that one of those gifts—and maybe even one of the responsibilities—is to put that talent to work making money. But it’s a fact that not all of us are going to be able to feed our families and put clothes on our backs thanks to our mighty pens.
So, in the light of the fact that only one in thousands of writers will ever make any money worth noting, why do we insist upon money as the pinnacle of our success? With such a strong emphasis on “publishing to prove our worth as writer,” it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. No doubt some of us are meant to publish (and maybe even hit the best-seller list ), but some of us may best serve our purpose by drudging in the trenches—blogging, freelancing, churning out short stories for Internet mags, even, on occasion, self-publishing.
It’s easy to feel sorry for ourselves or less than worthy because we’re not up there on the shelves with Janet Evanovich with a readership of millions. But frankly that probably isn’t what the good Lord has in mind for most of us. In the overall scheme of things, being marvelously successful and wealthy—nice as it may be—isn’t what matters. Staying in the center of God’s will and fulfilling His purpose, however large or small—that’s what matters.
If your emphasis is on money, you’re going to be disappointed. Writing has to be about something more, whether it’s the intent to minister to or entertain others or just easing that gnawing in our souls. Vinita Hampton Wright, in The Soul Tells a Story, her thought-provoking look at the creative life, says it just about perfectly:
...it helps to remember that creative work is worthy whether it’s paid or not. The fact the creative work is entangled in the world of commerce shouldn’t ruin your artistic life. You have to be pragmatic about the money part. If you make a good living at your work, that’s wonderful. But you can’t dismiss the work that doesn’t bring you money. I never made a dime off the one hundred-plus songs I spent nearly two decades writing, and I’ll never be known for them. But they did a certain work at a certain time. It was work I needed to do and others were glad I did.
Any art worth its salt is worth doing for free. Heck, when it comes down to it, many of us would empty our own pockets if that’s what it took for us to keep writing. And the fact of the matter is, a freebie here and there isn’t such a bad preface to making money as one might think.
People like free things. Even beyond the immediate gratification of the freebie itself, it builds a relationship between consumer and author. Give enough stuff away for free and eventually people will start buying. Unpublished horror/thriller writer Scott Sigler posted his book Earthcore as a free podcast on iTunes. He not only established a sizable following, he also snagged the attention of a major publisher.
Waiting for a publisher to pay you for your writing is all fine and good, but your work’s not going to anyone any good by collecting dust in the bottom desk drawer. With the book market slumping ever further, more and more opportunities are rising to the surface for writers who are willing to take a cut in pay.
One of the interesting things about writing for free is that readers are never annoyed because they had to pay for something only to discover it was below par. When the reading material is free, they can take it or leave it, with no skin off either of our noses. We have a right to write what we want, and readers have the right to read what they want.
What I’m suggesting here may sound a little radical at first. Crazy, maybe, even. I’m certainly not trying to downplay the efforts or success of those who are able to make a good living at their writing. They are the envied few, and they deserve to be applauded. But just because what they have done has garnered the title of “success,” doesn’t mean that those who don’t experience the same monetary fortunes, are “unsuccessful.” Finding fulfillment beyond a paycheck—not to mention trying to convince others of the validity of your work—certainly isn’t easy. As Charles Baxter comments in The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot:
In a materialistic society, to devote oneself to non-material ends requires quite a bit of energy and resolve. If You Want to Write [a book Baxter references] is actually full of good sense about writing and life because Brenda Ueland could see through the hypocrisy of gentility quickly and easily.
In short, while I wouldn’t discourage anyone from pursuing a paycheck with their art, and while I would absolutely congratulate them whenever they find said paycheck, I would encourage everyone—paid and unpaid alike—to find a niche they can fill now. We each need to take responsibility for using our skills to minister to people now, and in so doing perhaps we’ll be able to use our niche-work to polish ourselves for whatever bigger projects lay beyond. We cannot bury our talents in the field. Whether or not, the Lord has the validation of a paycheck waiting at the end of our next story isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that we make the best use of the gift He has given us, in whatever way He makes possible.
- November 26, 2008
- K.M. Weiland
- Posted in Writing Life