AT DINNER, my good friend Adrian M. Kelly (author of Down Sterling Road, which can he purchased here. Only one copy left!) observed that it’s difficult to make a living from serious writing.
I’ve been thinking about that comment, and the more I think the more I unearth. On its surface we see the reflection of a truism, that it is hard, and maybe impossible, to turn art into a living. My friend specifically identified serious writing, by which I have to assume he meant good writing. Writing that takes years of labor, that you polish to a brilliant shine. Serious writing is praised by knowing critics and canonized by the wise stewards of high culture, so that it may repose deep within the hearts and minds of generations to come. Tis forgéd in the smithy of thy soul.
Strip away the romanticism, and you’re left with a remarkable assertion: people hate quality. They’ll take sugary pulp over a nourishing meal. Serious writing requires a serious reader, and most readers are not serious. They are frivolous, or lazy, or uneducated, unable or unwilling to tell good prose from bad. The phrase It’s difficult to make a living from serious writing presumes that readers are the problem. Damn them!
This essay is not about my friend, it’s about writers in general. Adrian’s pessimistic comment about serious writing is a commonplace. We writers know the litany and we chant along. Kyrie eleison: lord have mercy upon us, the wretched, impoverished, unacknowledged writers. If you sit down with us, eventually the topic will come round to writing and what a miserable, thankless business it is. We’ve all found reasons to keep going, of course, but they have nothing to do with success or money or even readers. We’ve given up on these. The journalists lament the decline of newspapers and magazines, and the novelists the decay of university English departments. The poet, who up until this point has been holding his tongue, says “Spoiled buggers, try being a poet.” All the non poets agree: more than anything, it sucks being a poet.
Now for a thought experiment. Let’s imagine this most rare creature who is making a living from serious writing. Your task is to solve the riddle of how this happened. Don’t read any further until you have an explanation. Are you ready? Okay, now I’m going to give you what I suspect is the explanation of most writers:
Maggie spends years writing a book. She labors every word, crafting brilliant sentences and shimmering paragraphs. Her soul spills across the pages. She creates a work of unique and stunning beauty. She sends the manuscript to a publisher, who instantly recognizes genius. The book is rushed to print, and the public respond. Amazingly the dum dums who usually like trash see that Maggie is a gifted writer. Her book sells millions of copies. Maggie has won the lottery!
I would wager my money that this theme of winning the lottery underlies most writers’ conception of material success. Here’s how it looks in practice: you write a book, you sit back, you wait. You either a) win the lottery or b) you don’t. The 99 percenters in column b) get discouraged, but eventually most of them recover. What do they do? They play the lottery again. Write, wait. It’s like the old behaviorist principle TOTE, Test Operate Test Exit. If you’re a serious writer, it may be two years before you turn in that ticket. Some of my friends spend five years on a novel. Adrian released his last novel on October 15, 2005. By the time his next book comes out, he’ll have been holding that lottery ticket for ten years. And his readers will have spent a decade waiting for something new to buy. Assuming they even remember who he is.
I love and respect Adrian, and that’s why I chose to name him in the previous paragraph, rather than to keep my original draft. (It read, cowardly I think, “a certain writer friend of mine released his last novel on October 15, 2005.”) I agree with him that’s it’s hard to make a living at serious writing. We all know that. Where I disagree is with this serious writing notion, because the fact is it’s hard to make a living with any kind of writing. Let’s have a look.
First we need to establish a minimum dollar amount that can qualify as “making a living.” I’m going to set this at $25,000 a year, roughly the earnings of a full-time minimum wage job. In the city where I live that will get you a modest bachelor apartment and some food, used furniture and the odd night out. Not a glamorous life, but a living. If you have children, as many of us do, you will need more than this. (More meaning Get Writing.) So given the need to generate at a minimum $25,000, do you imagine it will be easier for you if you choose to produce “non-serious” writing? You know, fluff, crap, and chatter. Or Hallmark greeting cards. Or blog posts about your writing.
I write for two national daily newspapers, the Huffington Post and the National Post. Is my writing serious? Yes, and no. I work very hard to turn in engaging and carefully constructed arguments about global geo-politics, intrigue, war and genocide. How serious do these topics sound to you? More than a little bit, right? And yet Harold Bloom won’t be anthologizing my work any time soon, because my articles are not literature, and literature is what most people mean when they say serious writing. Never mind that I weave my substantial literary reading into my newspaper work, or that I use all the same techniques in my editorials that I use in my fiction. Newspaper writing, like newspapers themselves, is disposable. In the age of Twitter, the cycle has accelerated. That tweet about your latest piece will get 30 seconds of attention, and then everyone will move on to something else. Forget about canonization: try just keeping up.
The good news is that once you absorb this reality, all the bullshit disappears. Your job, dear writer, is to write and write and write, and when you’re done writing to think like a business person, plain and simple. The newspapers don’t pay for commentary (talk is cheap), so I use them strategically to establish my brand and to bring traffic to my website. Whether you are writing high art or gossip, you are facing the same fundamental challenge, which is how to build an audience for what you do. I would go further and say that the challenge of making a living at writing is no different from making a living in any business. Imagine that you went to a restaurant and ordered a meal. The waiter says to you, listen, our chef is a serious chef: the meal will be here in five years, and be assured that he’ll have put a lot of work into it. How long do you think this restaurant will be in business? My guess is that the chef will still be agonizing over his Cooker’s Block when the bank forecloses.
Yes, it’s hard. We writers make things worse however by adding non-existent and unnecessary agonies and puzzles and mysteries to the business of writing good prose and cultivating a relationship with a growing readership. Writing, self-promotion and marketing are not deep eternal mysteries. Repeat: not deep eternal mysteries. Writing is tough in the way that lifting something heavy is tough, not in the way that pondering the mind of the Eternal I Am is tough. And yet so many of my writer friends are trying to solve the deep mystery that isn’t, because they think there’s a magic trick at the heart of what we do.
That trick, I guess, is to put together just the right combination of words that will charm and overwhelm the world in a single, potent stroke. Ka-boom, it’s a best seller! We’re all trying to become the guy in that Barry Manilow song where the artist is someone who lives forever and makes the young girls cry and the whole world sing, and we’re trying to do it with a book. Good luck with that. I wish Barry had written a song about the artist who busts his nuts reaching his target of five new fans this week, by doing twenty different strategic and coordinated things. I’d sing along to that, and if you’re a writer you should too.